Issue 139 - May 12 - (Corrected) Five Clean Slates in HRC Elections Tomorrow, NGOs Call for Libya’s Rejection

NB: This update's section on "Civil Society Efforts" has been corrected. -editor

New York, May 12, 2010 - For the first time since the founding of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), all five UN regions plan to present non-competitive "clean slates" in the elections tomorrow, May 13.

The terms of fourteen member countries (one third of the Council) will expire on June 18, 2010. The countries that are running unopposed and therefore expected to be elected this week to fill their seats are: Angola, Ecuador, Guatemala, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Moldova, Poland, Qatar, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, and Uganda.

Particular concern has been expressed by human rights organizations about Libya's candidacy.

However, there is no deadline for Member States to submit their candidacies, which means that additional candidates have time to come forward. Some civil society groups are calling on governments with stronger human rights records to join the elections. The requirement in the founding Resolution that HRC members "uphold the highest standards of human rights and that they fully cooperate with the Council," makes it necessary, say the groups, for regions to put forward well-qualified candidates and that voting States reject unqualified candidates, even in cases of clean slates.

The members elected this week will serve from June 19, 2010 until June 18, 2013.

Election Procedure

Human Rights Council members are elected in a secret ballot by a majority of the General Assembly members, whether or not they are present and voting - in other words, an absolute majority (see founding Resolution (A/RES/60/251). Currently, a majority is 97 members.

In case of election without competition: Where a slate is composed of the same number of candidates as seats available - known as a "clean slate," or "closed slate" - the candidates still need to receive 97 positive votes in order to be elected. Therefore, their election is not necessarily guaranteed by virtue of the non-competitive slate. If a candidate fails to win 97 votes in three rounds of voting, the ballot is opened up to other candidates (Rule 94 of the GA rules of procedure). GA members may choose to write in non-candidates instead of voting for the declared candidates, and thereby could deny a candidate election.

Voting criteria: Resolution 60/251 states, "when electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments thereto" (Paragraph 8). The pledges of this year's candidates are available on this page of the General Assembly's website.

Terms and distribution: A term on the Council lasts for three years, and one-third of the membership is elected each year. Immediate re-election is allowed for two consecutive terms only, to prevent de facto permanent membership of the Council. Seats are distributed by geographic region:

  • African States: 13 seats
  • Asian States: 13 seats
  • Eastern European States: 6 seats
  • Latin American and Caribbean States (GRULAC): 8 seats
  • Western European and Other States (WEOG): 7 seats

Candidates for Election to HRC (2010-2013)

All five regional groupings of UN Member States currently are putting forward the same number of candidates as the seats allocated to their region.

In most cases, these "clean slates" are reached through negotiation within the respective regional groupings, resulting in direct or indirect endorsement by the region of the designated candidates.

The Group of Western European and Other States had gained a reputation for holding competitive elections for key bodies (HRC, Security Council, and the International Court of Justice), but in 2009 it ran a clean slate for the HRC and is set to do so again this year. An "Asian diplomat" speaking to Inter Press Service pointed out the discrepancy between WEOG's new tendency towards clean slates, and its strong effort during the creation of the HRC to ensure competitive elections.

In the Eastern European Group, Croatia withdrew its candidacy in February 2010, which resulted in a clean slate for that region. According to human rights organizations, "That region has had spirited competitive elections every year until now, so this is a great blow to the competitive process so important to improving the membership of the Council."

This left the Asian Group as the only remaining region expecting a competitive election, with five candidates bidding for four open seats. But on April 23, Iran, one of the five candidates, announced its withdrawal from the election, leaving Asia with a clean slate of four candidates.

The current candidates in each region are listed below:

Region

Term Ends June 2010

Seats available

Declared Candidates (2010-2013)

African States

 

 

Eligible for re-election:

  • Angola
  • Egypt
  • Madagascar

 

Not eligible for re-election:

  • South Africa

4

  • Angola (seeking re-election)
  • Libya
  • Mauritania
  • Uganda

Asian States

Eligible for re-election:

  • Qatar

Not eligible for re-election:

  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Philippines

 

4

  • Qatar (seeking re-election)
  • Malaysia
  • Thailand
  • Maldives

 

Eastern European States

Eligible for re-election:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Slovenia

2

  • Moldova
  • Poland

 

Latin American and Caribbean

Eligible for re-election:

  • Bolivia
  • Nicaragua

2

  • Ecuador
  • Guatemala

Western European and Other States

Eligible for re-election:

  • Italy

Not eligible for re-election:

  • Netherlands

2

  • Switzerland
  • Spain

Iran's Withdrawal

Iran announced the withdrawal of its candidature at the April 23 meeting of the Asian Group, saying it wished to "preserve Asian solidarity." Iran's withdrawal leaves the Asian Group with four candidates for four available seats on the Council, nearly guaranteeing those States' election.

According to its Foreign Ministry, Iran decided to withdraw after discussions with other members of the Asian Group. CNS writes, "Hinting at a quid pro quo, [the foreign ministry] said that Iran would instead be a candidate for an international women's rights body - ‘and all Asian countries will support our membership.'"

The "quid pro quo" turned out to be an agreement with Pakistan, the UNelections Campaign believes, for the latter to withdraw from the election to the UN's Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This left a clean slate for Asia in that election, virtually guaranteeing that Iran would gain a seat. Iran was elected to the CSW on April 28.

Iran reportedly plans to present another candidacy for the Human Rights Council in 2013.

Many observers attribute Iran's withdrawal from the HRC elections to "behind the scenes efforts" by Western governments (including Germany) and human rights organizations (Iranian and international) to end the candidacy. The National Iranian American Council is among those who spoke out against the bid, as did Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who wrote an open letter urging GA members to reject Iran's bid: "We hope that by rejecting the Islamic Republic of Iran's bid for membership in the Human Rights Council, you will draw the Iranian authorities' attention to their wrongdoings." Human Rights Watch said that Iran withdrew "in the face of mounting global opposition due to its abysmal human rights record."

The blog Rosett Report imagined the possible motives for governments' pressure on Iran to withdraw, asking whether their lobbying was driven by "the integrity to draw a line" or, by contrast, by the realization that "seating Iran on the Human Rights Council would open up the UN itself to global ridicule, on a level anyone could grasp."

Iran's decision to withdraw also may have been spurred by concerns that it would lose. In 2006, the first elections for the new Council, Iran ran for a seat but lost. Iran got the second-lowest number of seats, with Iraq getting the least support. The outcome was attributed to lobbying by the United States. More recently, in February 2010, Iran was criticized heavily during its turn in the HRC's Universal Periodic Review. France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., among others, expressed serious concern about the "bloody repression" (including killings, arrests, and torture) waged by Iran against dissidents since the country's contested national elections in 2009.

Civil Society Efforts

Civil society groups were successful in 2008 in effectively preventing the re-election of Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council. In 2009, civil society groups campaigned for the GA to reject Azerbaijan's bid, which was also successful. This year, in addition to having called for Iran's rejection, the groups are urging other States to run for election, urging specific human rights improvements in candidate countries, and calling for the rejection of Libya's bid.

Concerns about Uncontested Elections

A competitive election that includes candidates with strong human rights records would both "renew the spirited competition intended for membership on the HRC," says one campaigner, as well as increase the chances of electing States with a commitment to promoting and protecting human rights.

Human Rights Watch told the Inter Press Service that uncontested elections take from States "the chance to select the candidates best suited to serve on the Council." Freedom House and UN Watch elaborated, "closed lists deprive the Member States of the UNGA of the opportunity to exercise the responsibilities described in the 2006 UNGA Resolution creating the Council."

In addition, when the closed lists are comprised of countries with poor human rights records, they also "threaten to further weaken the Council, which still struggles to establish a reputation superior to its widely disparaged predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission."

In a Washington Post letter to the editor on May 8, Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch wrote, "Iran's failed bid for a council seat shows how elections can be used to improve the council's membership and its performance. But competitive elections can't work if they don't happen."

She called on the United States "and all those who want stronger action on human rights" to "start by supporting competitive elections for the council" and by being "willing to compete themselves," referring to last year's decision by the U.S. and WEOG to run a clean slate last year, and WEOG's clean slate of two candidates this year.

Human Rights Watch is a member of the NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council.

Assessing Eligibility for Membership

Last week, UN Watch and Freedom House released their yearly report rating the qualifications of the 14 candidates for HRC membership, based on their human rights records domestically and their voting records at the UN. The report finds that only five of the candidates are "qualified" to serve on the Council. The remaining nine are either "unqualified" or "questionable."

  • Qualified: Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Guatemala, Maldives
  • Unqualified: Libya, Angola, Mauritania, Malaysia, Qatar
  • Questionable: Moldova, Ecuador, Uganda, Thailand

Writing in Undeclared Candidates

The report urges the General Assembly to reject the five unqualified candidates in the election tomorrow. Instead of voting for them, it suggests, voting Member States should write in the name of countries with better qualifications.

New candidates may come forward after three rounds of inconclusive voting within a region, per GA Rule of Procedure 94. Therefore, Freedom House and UN Watch have suggested that "casting write-in votes for the best-qualified alternatives eligible" would demonstrate to "hesitating governments" who would be better-qualified that "there is a realistic prospect of their election."

Urging Other Candidates to Come Forward

Writing in the names of better-qualified governments would be much easier and more likely, analysts believe, if those better-qualified States would come forward as declared candidates. For example, to create competition in Eastern Europe, some have tried to persuade Croatia to renew its candidacy and Slovenia to run for re-election (see letters to potential candidates in each region).

Rejecting Libya's Candidacy

Libya's candidature is of particular concern to human rights groups. Freedom House said last week, "At a time when the ranks of African democracies are growing, it sends a terrible message to the world that a notorious human rights abuser such as Libya appears uncontested on the ballot."

UN Watch led an NGO effort to get the United States and the European Union to lobby against Libya and prevent its election. Several groups reached out to the U.S. and Spain (current president of the EU) with an appeal letter on May 10, writing, "Libya can be blocked if 96 countries decide to vote No. Although there are currently only 4 African states running for 4 seats-a closed slate-nevertheless Libya cannot be elected without 97 affirmative votes.... We urge you to act before the May 13 election, to encourage qualified African states to declare their candidacy, and to assist their campaigns."

The NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council, meanwhile, called on Member State to consider Libya's human rights record before deciding how to cast their votes.

Two possible outcomes of the lobbying effort are that Libya would withdraw (to be replaced by an African state with a stronger human rights record), and that a different African state would declare its candidacy and run for a seat successfully, defeating Libya. This scenario may be less likely, however, because the African Union has already endorsed the existing slate, and its members and supporters may be reluctant to vote differently.

Pushing Candidates to Improve

To all the candidates not considered suitable for membership in the HRC, NGOs are calling for specific improvements in human rights protection. Examples:

  • Malaysia: immediately end the use of all preventive detention laws;
  • Thailand: conduct effective investigations into major human rights abuses in the deep south, lift press censorship;
  • Angola: cease forced evictions without adequate compensation, cease mass deportations of foreign migrants, cooperate with the International Criminal Court; and
  • Uganda: withdraw bills pending in parliament that would permit forced HIV testing and criminalize practices related to homosexuality.

The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network said: "States should press candidates to take concrete steps to meet membership standards for the council, and make it clear that their votes depend on it.... The General Assembly set a high threshold for membership in the council, and has a duty to enforce it."