Issue 62 - May 22 - HRC Elections Completed in One Round; Sri Lanka Becomes First Country Voted off Council

New York, May 22, 2008 - The UN General Assembly met yesterday morning, May 21, to elect fifteen countries to the Human Rights Council. The elected and re-elected countries will serve three-year terms starting on June 19, 2008.

The object of a civil society campaign for a more effective HRC - Sri Lanka - was not elected for a second term. This is the second year in a row that NGOs have succeeded in keeping a government with a particularly poor human rights record off the Council. (Last year the campaign highlighted violations by Belarus, and Bosnia-Herzegovina was elected instead.)

Below are details on yesterday's proceedings and outcome, as well as initial analysis of the elections from various sources.

Results Summary

Re-elected: Brazil, France, Gabon, Ghana, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Zambia

Newly elected: Argentina, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Chile, Slovakia

These states will serve a three-year term, from June 19, 2008 to June 20, 2011. Members may serve two consecutive terms. Therefore, the re-elected states will not be eligible for immediate re-election. Newly elected states will be eligible for immediate re-election for one more term. 

Highest number of votes: The candidates elected with the highest number of votes were the four African states, which ran unopposed, and for which there were no invalid ballots and only one abstention.

Candidates not elected: Serbia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste

"Clean slates": Africa, Latin America and Caribbean (both had clean slates last year as well, and Africa ran a clean slate in the first-ever election of the Council three years ago.)

Non-candidate countries that received votes: Benin, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Kenya, Gambia, Mali, and Venezuela.

Current HRC members leaving on June 19, 2008: Guatemala, Mali, Romania, Peru, Sri Lanka

Of those not elected (Serbia, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, and Spain), only Sri Lanka is a current member. Sri Lanka thus becomes the first state to be "voted off" the Council. (Of those states not re-elected in 2007, none had declared themselves candidates for re-election.)

Voting Procedures

The voting takes place by secret ballot. An absolute majority of General Assembly members is needed for a candidate to be elected. (An absolute majority is fifty percent plus one - currently 97 members.) 

In his instructions, General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim reminded voting states to "take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto." These criteria were established by the General Assembly in its March 2006 Resolution founding the Council (A/60/251).

Voluntary pledges are documentation and commitments submitted by the state in support of its candidacy. The pledges can be used to evaluate the country's performance during its time on the Council. (Further, if Council members "fail to uphold the highest human rights standards, they can be suspended through a two-thirds majority vote by Assembly members," per A/60/251).

The General Assembly Rules of Procedure and past practices supply the rest of the voting rules:

  • If more candidates than seats available receive sufficient votes, the candidate receiving the largest number is elected;
  • In case of a tie, there will be a special round of voting restricted to those candidates.
  • A ballot is regarded as invalid if it contains more names from the region than actual seats available, or if all the names on the ballot paper belong to another Regional Group.

After all ballots were completed and collected, President Kerim called a 45-minute suspension of the meeting so the ballots could be counted. He did not return with the results for a little over an hour, presumably due to the close results with the WEOG ballots.

Campaign Materials

A rule of elections in the General Assembly is that when voting begins, no campaigning is allowed in the Hall and campaign material can no longer be distributed. Campaign materials, including small gift items, covered most delegations' desks throughout the voting, however.

The materials included: a decorative fan from South Korea, a hardwood box holding a ceramic elephant full of Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka, a foil-wrapped packed of herbal teas from the UK, a leather-like notepad and pen from Serbia, "thank you" banners, and colorful laminated pamphlets highlighting candidates' human rights positions. Photos of these items can be viewed at UNelections.org.

Results Details

Region

Members whose Terms Expires this year (eligible for re-election)

Official Candidates

Election Results

Comments

Africa

 

 

Gabon, Ghana,

Mali, Zambia

 

Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Zambia

Re-elected: Gabon, Ghana

 

Newly elected: Burkina Faso, Zambia

  • Mali chose not to run for re-election, leaving space for Burkina Faso's election.
  • Other states receiving votes were: Kenya (2), Mali (2), Gambia (1), and Benin (1), which caused laughter at the Benin delegation's table.

Asia

 

Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka

Bahrain, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste

Re-elected: Japan, South Korea, Pakistan

 

Newly elected: Bahrain

  • Candidates not elected: East Timor, Sri Lanka
  • Sri Lanka received 101 votes, more than the necessary 97 votes to be elected (absolute majority of GA members), but less than those received by Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, and Bahrain.
  • Timor-Leste received 92 votes.

Eastern Europe

 

Romania,

Ukraine

 

Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine

Re-elected: Ukraine

 

Newly elected: Slovakia

  • Candidate not elected: Serbia
  • Romania chose not to run for re-election.
  • The Czech Republic received 9 votes. It had declared candidacy originally but later withdrew, in deference to Slovakia's candidacy.

Latin America and Caribbean (GRULAC)

 

Guatemala Brazil,

Peru

Argentina, Brazil, Chile

Re-elected: Brazil

 

Newly elected: Argentina, Chile

  • Other states receiving votes were: Venezuela (3), Ecuador (1).
  • Chile reportedly traded a vote for Japan on the SC for their support for Chile on the HRC. Since GRULAC presented a clean slate, however, the arrangement was not needed after all.

 

Western Europe and others (WEOG)

 

 

France, United Kingdom

 

 

Re-elected: France, UK

  • Candidate not elected: Spain (received 1 vote less than UK)
  • There was a re-count and a recount to confirm the results.
  • Ten countries abstained and two ballots were ruled invalid. The GA spokesperson did not have information on why the two ballots were invalid.According to the Inner City Press, "The grounds for disregarding a cast vote can and should be made public, even if the identity of the disqualified voter remains secret."

Commentary

HRC members with poor human rights records

The Human Rights Council's membership includes several of the governments regarded as the world's most oppressive, including Angola, China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia.

Human rights groups in several regions led a campaign - NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council - to convince General Assembly members to reject the candidacy of Sri Lanka for the HRC, as described in UNelection Monitor Issue # 61. (View the campaign's website here.)

Now it is hoped that the successful effort will discourage other right-violating States from running for election, since they may draw more international attention to their abuses.

The campaign's press release on May 21 called the outcome a victory for the HRC and said, "UN member states enforced the standards they established for the new Human Rights Council by not re-electing Sri Lanka to the body today."

Human rights groups also urged Sri Lanka's government to reassess its human rights policies and practices, including its rejection of a UN human rights monitoring mission. This appears unlikely, however, given the government's statements after the election. It forcefully reiterated Sri Lanka's position on accepting the human rights monitors sent by the Council: "We don't see a need for a foreign body to monitor us. We have the necessary laws and procedures in place to monitor cases of human rights." The minister blamed the loss on what he considered an imbalanced campaign by NGOs, even suggesting that the NGO effort "represented the LTTE" and that it "bought votes" against Sri Lanka.

According to an assessment by other NGOs, Pakistan, Bahrain, Gabon and Zambia also do not deserve seats. But some believe that Pakistan should be given a chance to improve its human rights policies since electing a new government earlier this year. The "effective HRC" campaign called on Pakistan and Bahrain to implement domestic human rights reforms and engage more constructively with other governments on the council, to live up to the standards of Council members.

A coalition specific to Bahrain's candidacy wrote that violations of human rights are more serious coming from HRC members, and that the government must implement their previous pledges and commitments; Bahrain should become a model for human rights protectinon.

Zambia (marked as unqualified by the UN Watch report) is regarded by some as less threatening than the country which was its most likely alternative from the region - Zimbabwe.

A commentary from a Canadian paper on the day before the election suggested, "If a region is unable to offer enough qualified candidates to fill the seats, it should have to live with less representation on the Council. That's not an ideal solution, but the alternative is the travesty we have today."

A related concern for many NGOs and Member States is the number of OIC members on the Council (OIC: Organization of the Islamic Conference).

Because of the regional distribution of HRC seats, 26 of the 47 seats are designated for African and Asian countries, meaning that members of the OIC are likely to be an influential bloc on the Council in any given year. The OIC has led efforts which offended other countries, including special sessions on rights abuses by Israel, and restrictions on freedom of expression on religious grounds. A US legislator, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), said yesterday: "The election of Pakistan and Bahrain to the UN Human Rights Council again demonstrates that abiding by conventional standards of human rights is by no means a prerequisite for holding a seat on the Council. The results of today's election further means that the Organization of the Islamic Conference has tightened its grip on the Council, and will continue to push through anti-Israel resolutions, sanction the oppression of free speech through the guise of anti-defamation resolutions, and give freedom to brutal regimes in Uzbekistan, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo."

Related to the issue of electing human rights violators to the Council may be an emerging trend, in which countries currently serving a term on the Council and run for re-election will be voted back in, barring a dramatically worsened human rights record (i.e. Sri Lanka).

Absence of competition

Another concern about the election is an absence of competition in some instances. This relates both to the use of "clean slates" by two regions and reports of vote trading before the election. A "clean slate" describes the situation when the number of candidates from a region is the same as the number of seats available, so that all candidates are guaranteed election.

Morton Halperin of the Open Society Institute said yesterday, "Although this is a common practice in UN diplomacy, trading votes is unacceptable in the election of Human Rights Council members."

The position of the UNelections Campaign is that clean slates are cause for concern, because members of the General Assembly are not able to choose from candidates using a comparative assessment of human rights records and pledges, as intended by Resolution 60/251. When candidates fall short of the highest standards for human rights observance, the only way for Member States to honor the membership standards will be by withholding votes from an unqualified candidate, including, if necessary, by casting a blank ballot for seats in those regions where the number of candidacies equals the number of available seats.

In future elections, GA members should:

  • Work to ensure that there are more candidates than vacant seats in each region
  • Elect new members on the basis of their human rights record and commitment to protect and promote human rights internationally and nationally and to cooperate with the Council, while excluding "reciprocal arrangements," or vote-trading between states;
  • Reject candidate countries which do not fully meet the standards for membership on the Council by either writing in a qualified undeclared country or casting a blank ballot as to that seat;
  • If they are candidates in the forthcoming elections, issue substantive pledges that are concrete, credible and measurable and that address the Suggested Elements for Voluntary Pledges and Commitments by Candidates for Election to the Human Rights Council, prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and
  • Encourage the General Assembly to take long-term measures to provide genuine plurality of choice in future elections, for example by ensuring that there will be twice as many candidates than the number of available seats in the region.

Coming Up 

Next year the terms of the following eighteen members will expire:

  • Africa: Cameroon, Djibouti, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal
  • Asia: Bangladesh, China, Jordan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia
  • Eastern Europe: Azerbaijan, Russian Federation
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay
  • Western European and Others: Canada, Germany, Switzerland 

Resources

Summary of Election Results (from General Assembly)

Press release from Effective HRC Campaign (March 21, 2008)

In the News

Rights group urges Sri Lanka to reassess policies after losing bid for UN Human Rights Council - International Herald Tribune, May 22

Islamic Bloc Nations Control One-Third of UN Rights Council Seats - CNS News, May 22

Argentina, Brasil y Chile, en el Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la ONU - El Pais, May 22

Bahraini Activists Push For Reforms Following Election To U.N. Human Rights Council - AHN, May 22

Ground Facts, Rights Lobby Cause Sri Lanka;s UN Debacle - TamilNet, May 22

Sri Lanka Dropped From Human Rights Council - Inter Press Service, May 22

 

More News on this and other UN Elections and Appointments