In Depth

Electing serial abusers will ‘entirely discredit’ UN human rights body, campaigners warn

China, Russia and Saudi Arabia among nations set to win seats on the council

A string of countries accused of perpetrating human rights abuses are on course to win election to the United Nations Human Rights Council, despite protests from activists and political dissidents.

China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Cuba and Pakistan are expected to secure places on the governing board of the organisation in a vote today - a move described by Geneva-based monitoring group UN Watch as “like making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade”.

Each country must win 97 votes in the UN General Assembly to be appointed as one of the council’s 14 member states, “meaning a concerted campaign among democracies could still stand a chance of blocking their election”, The Times reports.

But “thanks to backroom deals”, Cuba and Russia are running unopposed, while China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are competing with Nepal and Uzbekistan for Asia’s four seats, the newspaper says.

The UK government is among the global powers that have been urged to oppose their election. Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has written to her opposite number Dominic Raab citing UN guidance that countries should “take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights” when voting, The Guardian reports.

Arguing that the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang is “prima facie, a crime against humanity”, Nandy and Labour are calling on Downing Street to “oppose China’s election” and “make clear to the world the reasons for doing so”.

If elected, it would be China’s fifth term on the council, having waited nine months to be eligible again under the terms of re-election. Yang Jianli, an exiled dissident, last week told a press conference organised by UN Watch that during the past year, Beijing has “escalated human rights repression across the board”.

Downing Street has refused to confirm how Britain will vote, with a Foreign Office spokesperson simply saying that “as the foreign secretary has said, the international community will not turn a blind eye to egregious human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that the appointment of China and Saudi Arabia, which also held a seat on the council until 2019, would “prevent scrutiny of their abuses and those by their allies”.

The New York City-based organisation’s UN director, Louis Charbonneau, argues that “serial rights abusers should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council”, adding: “It’s not good for human rights or for the rights council when the worst rights violators get elected.”

In September, “dozens of nations condemned Saudi Arabia before the council over serious rights violations and demanded accountability for the murder Jamal Khashoggi”, the dissident journalist killed in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018, Al Jazzera reports.

The council has “alleged other serious rights violations in Saudi Arabia, including reports of torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances, and HRW noted the Saudi-led coalition also continues to commit war crimes against civilians in Yemen”, the news site adds.

The potential election of Russia is extremely controversial too, with Moscow accused of repeatedly carrying out state sanctioned attacks on dissidents living in foreign countries. 

Appointing Russia to the body would “entirely discredit” the UN as a defender of human rights, according to Bill Browder, who founded the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign following his close adviser Sergei Magnitsky’s death in a Moscow prison after being denied medical treatment.

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