Is the UN Human Rights Council Broken?

Some are worried the UN human rights council is headed down the same track as the now defunct Human Rights Commission. Photo courtesy of UN Photo.

Venezuela was voted onto the United Nations Human Rights Council on 17 October 2019 by the 74th UN General Assembly. Venezuela and Brazil were both voted on to the council as members of the group of representatives from Latin American and Caribbean states. The vote was won by a narrow margin, with Brazil gaining 153 votes, Venezuela gaining 105 votes, and Costa Rica gaining 96. Venezuela won the seat despite protests from over 50 organizations and countries. Costa Rica announced candidacy shortly before the vote to prevent Venezuela from getting the seat.

The result follows a visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to Venezuela in June. Bachelet was invited by Maduro to the country as a sign of his commitment to addressing human rights issues in the country. Following the visit, Bachelet released in July a scathing report of the human rights abuses witnessed in Venezuela. Maduro subsequently dismissed the report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as biased. In September, the UN announced a fact-finding mission would be conducted in Venezuela to investigate human rights concerns.

Does membership on the council signal a trend toward addressing human rights abuses in the country? Membership on the council often serves as a hallmark of legitimacy for governments. Some countries join the council to increase respect for human rights in their home countries. Logic follows that countries would try to address human rights abuses in order to gain a spot on the council to gain legitimacy for the regime. What happens when a state fails to address human rights abuses after gaining membership on the council? Several critics see the council as a way for corrupt regimes to find legitimacy on the international stage.

The 14 new council members were elected by the UN body to serve for a period of three years beginning in January 2020. Membership on the council requires a responsibility to uphold human rights standards. The Human Rights Council consists of 47 member states. 13 are from the group of African states, 13 from the group of Asia-Pacific States, 6 from Eastern European states, 8 from the group of Latin American and Caribbean States, and 7 from the group of Western European and other States. Members are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. The Council aims to represent each region of the world in order to fairly address concerns.

Venezuela’s membership raises concerns over the legitimacy of the human rights council. The Maduro government is accused of jailing, torturing and arbitrarily arresting members of the opposition. Venezuela is experiencing economic and social collapse as the Maduro government uses the military to fight dissent. Over 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled the nation. Maduro has also accused the US of leading a coup and waging “economic war.”

The United States and several states in the EU and Latin America back the regime led by opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Furthermore, the Maduro government is no longer recognized by more than 50 countries after the main opposition party in the National Assembly declared the Maduro government illegitimate. The 2018 elections won by Maduro are largely seen as illegitimate by both the National Assembly and the international community. As a result, Guaidó cited article 233 of the Constitution and declared himself interim president until elections could be held. Article 233 allows for the head of the Nation Assembly to take office as interim leader if the presidency is empty. Guaidó interpreted the fraudulent elections to mean the presidency is still open. Yet it is the government led by Maduro that has won the seat at the UN. Critics are worried that giving the seat to Venezuela will legitimize the Maduro government.

However, this is not the first-time countries with questionable track records on human rights have been allowed on the council. In 2018, five countries with histories of human rights abuses were voted on the council. In this case, the countries were from the same region where there were six open seats. There were no other states running, despite US and EU efforts to make it more competitive, so all states were elected to the council despite serious concerns over their human rights records.

As a result, the validity of the Human Rights Council has been called into question. Some have compared the current council to that of the failed human rights commission. The commission was disbanded in favor of the council as a result of several members of the commission also committing human rights abuses within their own countries. Not only does it call into question the legitimacy of the council but having members who also commit human rights abuses can hinder any council decisions. Burundi voted against a resolution on its own situation while serving on the council. However, the council has expressed its desire to continue investigating human rights abuses in Venezuela as it has done for other members of the council.

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