October 19, 2020

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China and Russia have won seats on a UN human rights body – here’s why it’s important

China and Russia have won seats on the UN’s premiere human rights body despite their abysmal human rights records.

However, Saudi Arabia – which was also in the running for a seat – has lost.

What is the United Nations Human Rights Council and what does it do?

The UNHRC is a UN body tasked with promoting and protecting human rights worldwide by investigating alleged breaches.

Not to be confused with several other bodies that begin with UN and end in “human rights” and do similar jobs.

What’s happened to it today?

The UNHRC has 47 members elected for three-year terms but not all in one go.

More from China

This time round, 15 seats were up for grabs.

Behind the scenes manoeuvring meant that Russia and Cuba were shoe-ins for the regional blocs while China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were among those competing for four seats allocated to Asia.

Image: Russia often silences dissent and political opposition

Why is this in the news?

If you think Russia and China have unblemished human rights records then today’s votes should not be that newsworthy.

Or you might think their appointment to the body is like letting arsonists into the fire brigade, in the words of UN Watch.

Human rights bodies are hopping mad that countries that regularly abuse human rights on a large scale are now sitting on the body that’s meant to be protecting them.

Despots and autocrats rejoice.

Is that fair?

Well, China executes thousands of people every year and is accused of genocide – or something approaching it – against its Uighur minority.

The perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims are detained
Image: The perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in China, where Uighur Muslims are detained

Russia routinely silences dissent and political opposition, most recently allegedly using a nerve agent to deal with government critic Alexei Navalny.

Need I go on?

Saudi Arabia, which arbitrarily detains and executes many prisoners and is accused of war crimes in Yemen, failed to win a seat on the body despite announcing reform plans.

So, how did China and Russia end up winning a seat ?

The UN isn’t so much a monolithic organisation as a collection of member countries.

They have equal voting power in these kinds of decisions and can be persuaded to vote this way or that.

Countries can twist the arms of smaller nations who owe them a favour.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny fell ill while on a plane in Russia
Image: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was allegedly poisoned

So that was that then?

Not exactly.

Each country needs to have its appointment confirmed in the UN General Assembly with 96 affirmative votes so if enough countries got together they could have in theory blocked the controversial appointments.

Couldn’t someone have done something?

It’s a secret ballot and in the background all kinds of deals can be done to secure countries’ support.

China, for instance, has considerable sway over nations involved in its Belt and Road Initiative.

Other countries have their own means of twisting arms.

The Foreign Office, by the way, wouldn’t say how the UK was voting in the secret ballot.

This has come up before, hasn’t it?

It has, pretty often.

The UNHRC was set up in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights exactly because its predecessor had been accused of letting countries with poor human rights records use their position to protect themselves and others like them carrying out abuses.

The plan was to build more safeguards and accountability into its replacement but critics say that has been a failure.

So that didn’t work out then.

Not exactly.

Jamal Khashoggi
Image: Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018

Only last month, dozens of countries upbraided Saudi Arabia in front of the council for serious rights violations and demanded an explanation for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Despite all that, Saudi Arabia could have had a place on the council that is meant to prevent human rights abuses worldwide.