Pence to UN: ‘The Truth Is, The Human Rights Council Doesn’t Deserve Its Name’

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Vice President Mike Pence addresses the Security Council on peacekeeping reforms on September 20, 2017. To his right is British Prime Minister Theresa May. (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Patrick GoodenoughA day after the Trump administration co-hosted a meeting to discuss ways of keeping rights abusers off the U.N.’s top human rights body, Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday underlined its scathing assessment of the Human Rights Council, saying that it “doesn’t deserve its name.”

Addressing the U.N. Security Council in New York, Pence drew attention to the presence on the Geneva-based council of some of the world’s most rights-abusing regimes.

He noted that the HRC was established in line with the U.N.’s charter commitment to foster “international cooperation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”

“But the truth is, the Human Rights Council doesn’t deserve its name,” he said. “As we look at the membership of the council today, we see nations that betray these timeless principles upon which this institution was founded.”

“Today, the United Nations Human Rights Council actually attracts and welcomes many of the worst human rights violators in the world,” Pence continued. “A clear majority of the Human Rights Council’s members fail to meet even the most basic human rights standards.”

Pence pointed to two current HRC members by name.

“Cuba sits on the Human Rights Council – an oppressive regime that has repressed its people and jailed political opponents for more than half a century,” he noted. “Venezuela sits on the Human Rights Council – a dictatorship that undermines democracy at every turn, imprisons political opponents, and as we speak is advancing policies that worsen deprivation and poverty that’s costing the lives of innocent men, women, and children.”

Cuba and Venezuela are just two of 12 countries on the 47-member council this year that are graded “not free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House, which each year evaluates countries’ records on political rights and civil liberties.

The others – not mentioned by name by the vice president – are Saudi Arabia, China, Egypt, Qatar, Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Rwanda, and the United Arab Emirates.

Previous “not free” members over the HRC’s 11-year history have included Russia, Mauritania, Algeria, Vietnam and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.

Some of them – notably Cuba, China, Russia and Pakistan – have held seats on the council for most of its 11-year existence. (Freedom House upgraded Pakistan from “not free” to “partly free” with the restoration of civilian rule in 2009, but it continues to oversee the world’s most notorious blasphemy laws.)

Looking back over the council’s short lifespan, at no time has is had more than 25 “free” members (53 percent), and at its worst, in 2016, it had just 18 (38 percent). This year there are 21 “free” members (44.6 percent).

The number of “not free” members has ranged from a high of 13 (27.6 percent) in 2010 to a low of eight (17 percent) in 2009.

This year’s council has 12 “not free” members (25.5 percent), and two more – Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo – look set to join in elections scheduled for next month.

Closed slates, ‘mutual praise society’

Around one-third of the council’s 47 seats come up for election each year. The vote, by the U.N. General Assembly, is by secret ballot, and a simple majority is sufficient for a candidate to win a seat.

Seats are earmarked for geographical groups, with Africa and Asia getting 13 each, Latin America eight, the Western group seven and Eastern Europe six.

Candidates are put forward by their geographic groups, which often offer “closed slates” – the same number of candidates are submitted as there are seats available, so there is no competition.

Critics say the presence of rights-abusing countries on the council has significantly affected its agenda, as repressive regimes close ranks to support each other and fend off criticism from democracies.

This has been especially evident in the HRC’s “universal periodic review” (UPR) mechanism, a supposed highlight of reform which requires every country’s record to be assessed by the HRC every four years.

Instead, the UPR typically sees countries with poor records line up to support each other, in what one critics have dubbed a “mutual praise society” for abusive regimes.

Nowhere has the impact of the council’s criteria-free membership been more evident, however, than in its dealings with Israel.

Out of 193 U.N. member-states, Israel alone is subject to a permanent item on the HRC’s recurring agenda, meaning it is condemned every time the council holds a regular session (three times a year).

Pence on Wednesday tackled the issue head-on.

“The council’s agenda item seven actually singles out Israel for discussion at every single meeting, something no other country must endure,” he said. “As evidence, the Human Rights Council has passed more than 70 resolutions condemning Israel, while largely ignoring the world’s worst human rights abusers.”

“It is, as President Trump said yesterday, ‘a massive source of embarrassment.’”

In his debut General Assembly address, Trump called it “a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. co-chaired a meeting in New York with Britain and the Netherlands, focused on HRC reform.

Thirty-eight other countries attended, along with the European Union. Most were democracies in the Americas and Europe, joined by Australia, Japan and Fiji.

In a joint statement, the co-chairs said the participants agreed that the council cannot perform its function as a respected advocate for human rights “if serial human rights violators are continuously allowed to serve on it.”

They called on U.N. member-states to work together “to achieve progress on reforms this year.”