One of the United Nations (UN) agenda is to promote and protect human rights. The UN’s approach to human rights has been praised but also criticized by the international community. The United Nations Human Right Council (UNHRC) were established in 2006, after the reform of the former United Nations agency in the same year with a similar name, United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). Despite the reform, UNHRC has failed as a UN’s human rights body to promote and protect human rights because the persisting inclusion of human rights violators.
Understanding the need for reformation of UNHRC’s predecessor, UNCHR, helps to explain the creation of the UNHRC. Established in 1946, Commission on Human Rights (CHR) was a body under the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The mandate for CHR included monitoring the members of the commission and assist in the promotion and implementation of human rights (Administrative Committee on Coordination, 2000). Most importantly, the CHR protected the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from being violated. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the membership of the Commission does not have effective regulation which allowed “countries with poor human rights records gaining seats on the CHR and aggressively working toward making the Commission less hard hitting and relevant. The Commission “became the subject of intense criticism for targeting some countries while ignoring the records of other egregious violators” (Karns, Mingst, and Stiles, 2015, p. .484). Countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Sudan were just a few countries with strong violation of human rights who were elected into the Commission. Pressured by the international community and worried about its credibility as a human rights body, the General Assembly came together in 2006 to reform the Commission.
Unfortunately, the reform has not helped but worsened the credibility of the UN as a reliable human rights organization. In 2006, the UNHRC was established and considered as a “historic resolution…that gives the United Nations a much-needed chance to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world”, as stated by Kofi Anna, UN Secretary General at the time (BBC, 2006). The Council elects its members through a secret ballot. The US opposed strongly to the reform because “the US had wanted a smaller body to be created, with members chosen primarily for their commitment on human rights” (BBC, 2006). Furthermore, the US wanted a two third majority voted and ban for countries with human rights violation. With the new reform, every member of the UN becomes eligible to join. Thus, human rights violators are also eligible to get a seat at the council which mean that the Council’s credibility is at risk once again.
The secret ballot voting method seems to allow countries to vote freely and anonymously without feeling pressure from other countries. However, the method has not been effective because it completely relies on the good faith of the voters. Realistically, reliance upon every state to have the perfect intention to fight human rights violation is a utopic concept. Of course, most states appear to be supportive in the improvement of human rights. As argued by Davis, Murdie and Steinmetz, human right international nongovernmental organizations (HROs) like the UN could pressure its member states to change its human rights practices. However, when states are given the right to vote secretly, they still vote for the violators because these states have the economic and political power.
The best case of a country with a horrendous track record who were voted to the council is Saudi Arabia. In 2016, the United Nations announced Saudi Arabia as one of the 14 countries who were elected by secret ballot to serve on the Council on a three-year term. Saudi Arabia won 151 votes. Saudi Arabia ranked lowly in terms of women’s rights and religious freedom. Report from HRW calimed that at least 158 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2015. Saudi Arabia did not receive much praise for its international politics neither. The Guardian reported that at least 10,000 Yemen have died, 14 million have gone hungry and 3 million have lost their home since Saudi’s bombing in 2015 (Shaheen, 2017). The Council is gradually becoming a disappointment for allowing one of world’s grossest human right violator to win a seat. Saudi Arabia is known for its oil, and excluding it from the council can create major economic backlash. Therefore, even though Saudi Arabia allegedly has a grim record of human rights violations, it could still win seat through its political and economic game.
The Council has failed as a credible human rights body who aims to promote and implement human rights because human rights violators still managed to gain seats. The Council is falling into the trap that its predecessor once failed into because it is heavily politicized. The secret ballot voting method showed that states still vote based on the political pressure and economical gains. The Council would eventually collapse, just like its predecessor, if it continued to give seats to human rights violators.