The 2015 Human Rights Council

by Marc Limon & Toby Lamarque Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

On October 21st the UN General Assembly held its annual election for seats on the Human Rights Council. A total of fifteen seats were available across the UN’s five regional groups, with the candidates and results shown in the table below (those elected in bold). The new members will start their three-year terms on 1st January 2015.

In the African Group, Botswana and Congo sought and secured their second consecutive terms. Benin and Burkina Faso will depart the Council (the latter was obliged to by the membership rules, having served two consecutive terms), to be replaced by Ghana and Nigeria. Both have served on the Council before, as founding members of the body: Ghana from 2006 to 2011, and Nigeria from 2006-2012.

The Asia-Pacific Group likewise saw the re-election of two sitting members, India and Indonesia, and the election of two new members, Bangladesh and Qatar, which will replace Kuwait and the Philippines. Both these new members have previously held seats on the Council: Bangladesh from 2006-2012 and Qatar from 2007-2013. They are both making their return after having been obliged to drop off the Council for at least a year following two consecutive terms. Thailand, which had previously served one term on the Council from 2010-2013, was not elected.

In the Eastern European Group, the Czech Republic and Romania will depart the Council after one term each, to be replaced by Albania and Latvia. This will be the first time either of these countries have held Council seats.

In the Latin American Group, the elections were won by Bolivia, El Salvador and Paraguay, which will replace Peru, Chile (obliged to step down after two consecutive terms), and Costa Rica, which stood for a second term but was not elected. Of these three new members, only Bolivia has previously held a Council seat, having served a single term from 2007-2010.

Finally, in the Western European and Others Group, Austria and Italy depart the Council. Austria was a member for a single term (2011-2014) and Italy twice (from 2007-2010 and 2011-2014). The outgoing members will be replaced by the Netherlands and Portugal. The former was a founding member of the Council (two terms from 2006-2010), while the latter will be a member for the first time.

With the arrival of the 15 new members, the 2015 composition of the Council will be as follows:

According to General Assembly resolution 60/251, which first established the Council, each of these 47 states is expected to ‘uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights’. During the twelve months of 2015, it will fall to them to take the lead in implementing the Council’s mandate to promote ‘universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner’.

Clean Slates and Costa Rica

Considering the importance of Council members in shaping and implementing the body’s work, two features of this year’s election are of particular concern.

The first is the continued prevalence of ‘clean slates’ among the regional groups (discussed in detail in the context of last year’s election here). Only the Asia-Pacific Group and the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) ran competitive elections this year, with the other three groups fielding only as many candidates as seats available.

Clean slates transform the method of filling vacant Council seats from elections to coronations, devaluing membership, reducing accountability for incumbents and calling into question the credibility of the Council. Becoming a Council member should be a transparent and competitive process that requires states to demonstrate their qualifications for the role. It should not be a decision that is made through ‘reciprocal arrangements’ (whereby one state agrees to vote for another in exchange for a reciprocal commitment for a future election) or by negotiations among regional groups – ‘back door’ deals that are then merely rubber-stamped by the General Assembly. The clean slate election in the Western Group is particularly disappointing, considering the Group’s loud rhetorical support for competitive Council elections

In the eight Council elections since the first in 2006 (when all 47 seats were up for grabs) the number of clean slates per regional group has been as follows:

African Group – 6

Asia-Pacific Group – 6

Latin American and Caribbean Group – 5

Western European and Others Group – 5

Eastern European Group – 4

Even where there have been competitive elections, only once (Western Group in 2012) has the number of candidates exceeded the number of seats by more than one.

Linked with these deeply negative trends is the case of Costa Rica. As mentioned above, Resolution 60/251 makes clear that ‘when electing members of the Council, UN Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.’ The failure to re-elect Costa Rica in the Latin American Group (GRULAC) suggests UN states are not abiding by this imperative, and are thus calling into question the credibility of the election process and, by extension, of the Council itself.

A cursory review of international democracy and human rights indices shows Costa Rica scoring far higher than its competitors in this year’s GRULAC election, with a 2014 Freedom House “Freedom in the World” rating of 1 (the highest possible score) and an Economist Intelligence Unit “Democracy Index 2013” rating of 8.03 (10 being the highest score; Bolivia by comparison scored 5.79). Furthermore, the 2014 Reporters Without Borders “World Press Freedom Index” ranked Costa Rica 21st in the world (Paraguay, by comparison, sits in 105th place), and the 2013 Transparency International “Corruption Perceptions Index” placed it at 49th (Paraguay is 150th).

According to observers in New York, the GRULAC election was decided not by an assessment of the candidate countries’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, but by the efficiency with which those candidates were able to secure the above-mentioned ‘reciprocal arrangements’ of support.

New and Familiar Faces

Of the incoming members of the Council, two – India and Indonesia – will be starting their fourth membership terms, with both having sat continuously since the Council’s establishment in 2006 (except for an obligatory one-year absence from 2010-2011). Bangladesh, Ghana, Netherlands, Nigeria and Qatar will all be serving their third terms, while Bolivia, Botswana and Congo will be serving their second. Albania, El Salvador, Latvia, Paraguay and Portugal will take seats on the Council for the first time.

When the new members take their seats, a total of 95 of the UN’s 193 member states (49.2%) will have served at least one term on the Council.

Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDs) continue to be seriously under-represented on the Council. Of the 48 countries listed by the UN Conference on Trade and Development as LDCs, only 13 (27.1%) have ever held seats on the Council. SIDS fare even worse: only 3 of the 37 (sovereign) states categorised as such by the UN have been Council members (Cuba, Maldives and Mauritius).

Political Forecast for 2015

There is a general sense among Council delegates and observers that the body has become increasingly divided and politicised over the past few years.

The political dynamics of the Council are driven by a relatively small number of highly influential states. In most cases, these states amplify their influence by working through regional or political groups, both formal and informal. Formal groups include the European Union (EU), the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). At the same time, the more informal constellation of states gathered under the name ‘Like-Minded Group of Countries’ (LMG)[1] has become increasingly active over recent years, stimulated by a relative decline in cohesion and influence among traditional developing country blocs.

At the start of 2015, a total of 170 Council membership terms will either have been completed or be in progress.[2] The table below shows how many of these terms have been served by members of major political groups, as well as their representation in the 2015 composition of the Council.

With the (re)-election of Nigeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Qatar, Bolivia and Albania, there will be (net) one additional OIC member state, and (net) two additional members of the LMG on the Council in 2015. The EU will have (net) one fewer member with the Czech Republic and Romania being replaced by Latvia (an EU member) and Albania (a non-member); however, Albania’s status as an EU candidate country means that de facto the group’s vote count is likely to remain the same.

Equally important, dynamic and influential ‘middle-ground’ states such as Austria, Chile, Costa Rica and Burkina Faso – delegations that have often played a key role on important resolutions or within regional groups debates – have now left the Council.

The political fortunes of the Council in 2015 are likely to turn, to a significant degree, on the interplay of multiple dynamics: whether the new membership balance will strengthen the power and influence of blocs and groupings like the LMG (as pure numbers suggest it might); the extent to which the departures of Chile and Costa Rica, and their replacement by Bolivia, El Salvador and Paraguay, will alter dynamics within, and outward positions adopted by, the Latin American and Caribbean Group; and whether changes among African members will have a discernable influence on group positions. Finally, any possible fluctuations in US engagement with the Council, as President Barack Obama’s nears the end of his second term (in 2016), may also have an important influence on the 2015 Human Rights Council and its output.

[1]The Like Minded Group is a somewhat amorphous grouping and its membership can vary depending on the initiative being undertaken. The membership figure of 28 is an approximate amount calculated by URG on the basis of two joint statements (one thematic and one country-specific) delivered on behalf of LMG countries : one by Russia on ‘preventative approaches in the UN system’  on 4th March 2014, and one by the LMG Coordinator, Egypt, on ‘the mandate given to the OHCHR by Res. 25/1 to carry out investigations on Sri Lanka’ on 25th September 2014. The 28 states who endorsed one or both of these statements are as follows, with 2015 Council members in bold: Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Egypt, Indonesia, India, Iran, DPRK, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Uganda, UAE, Venezuela, Zimbabwe..

[2]The majority of these terms (141) were of three-year duration, but when the Council was first created some terms were truncated to two-year (15) or one-year (14) duration to ensure that elections to the Council were staggered, with approximately 15 seats contested each year.