Analysis on the Human Rights Council performance since 2006

UN Human Rights Council: Defeating the Election of Human Rights Abusers
[This is a draft chapter for an upcoming book on human rights advocacy; not for distribution or reproduction]

by Jo Becker
[Award-winning journalist and currently an investigative reporter for The New York Times. Formerly with the Washington Post, she won, with Barton Gellman, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Ms. Becker and Mr. Gellman won the prize with a series of articles titled Angler, which explored the role of Vice President Dick Cheney. (Angler was a Cheney Secret Service codename.)]

When the UN General Assembly created the Human Rights Council in 2006, governments and NGOs sought to create a pre-eminent intergovernmental body that would protect and promote human rights around the world, while avoiding the flaws that had fatally discredited its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Commission had increasingly become known not for advancing human rights, but as a body co-opted by countries with abysmal human rights records in order to protect themselves and other abusers from criticism and scrutiny. Countries had used their membership to defeat resolutions criticizing human rights violations by their own and other governments, and to dismantle special procedures that had been created to monitor practices in countries with a history of poor human rights records.

In contrast, when the General Assembly created the new Council, it specified that its members should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate” with the new Council.2 While members of the previous Commission had usually been selected by their regional groups and rubber-stamped by the UN Economic and Social Council, new Council members were required to win the affirmative vote of an absolute majority of UN member states (97 votes out of the 192 UN member states) as well as successfully compete against other candidates from their region.

The Human Rights Council is responsible for promoting universal respect for human rights, addressing specific violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, appointing experts to monitor the human rights practices in specific countries and around particular themes, and assessing the human rights records of individual UN member states. While the old Commission had met just once a year for a 6-week session in Geneva, the new Council was to meet for three sessions a year, totaling at least 10 weeks. It has the authority to hold special sessions to address human rights crises, and in 2007, established a “universal periodic review” that subjects every UN member state to a peer review of its human rights practices every four years.

For human rights advocates, the Human Rights Council offers significant opportunities to shine a light on issues that require international attention and create pressure on governments to end human rights abuses. The Council’s country-specific resolutions can be a potent tool for censuring violators, as even the most abusive governments are sensitive to their international reputation and seek to avoid public condemnation of their abusive practices. Advocates promote Council resolutions and debates on particular themes in order to promote emerging areas of human rights, or reinforce existing ones, including the rights of women, children, migrants, and other vulnerable groups. In 2008, country resolutions were adopted on Haiti, Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories, Myanmar, North Korea, and Sudan, and thematic resolutions addressed issues including extreme poverty, transitional justice, torture, the arbitrary deprivation of nationality, the right to food and education, and the rights of indigenous peoples, civilians in armed conflict, and migrants. [General Assembly resolution A/RES/60/251, April 3, 2006].

The Council, like the preceding Commission, also has the authority to create and renew country and thematic mandates, which include special rapporteurs that monitor and report on human rights practices in a particular country or around a specific right. The creation or renewal of a country mandate signals that the country involved has serious human rights problems and is widely perceived as carrying a significant stigma. NGOs routinely provide documentation of human rights abuses to special rapporteurs, who may then include it in their official reports to the full Council. In 2009, the Council had eight country-specific rapporteurs [Burundi, Cambodia, North Korea, Haiti, Myanmar, the Palestinian territories, Somalia, and Sudan.], as well as 24 thematic rapporteurs or independent experts, and four working groups.

Original members included the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) (Argentina), Democracy Coalition Project, Human Rights Watch, International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, People in Need (Czech Republic).

The negative influence of abusive governments in the Commission on Human Rights had shown that the membership of the new Human Rights Council would be critical for its effectiveness. As the new Council was being debated in the General Assembly, NGOs advocated for specific criteria that all new members should be required to meet, including ratification of core human rights treaties, timely reporting to UN treaty bodies, cooperation with UN experts and special rapporteurs, implementation of the recommendations of UN human rights bodies, and dedication to improving respect for human rights in their respective countries. In creating the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly set two key standards for membership: full cooperation with the Council, and upholding the “highest standards” in the promotion and protection of human rights [General Assembly resolution A/RES/60/251, adopted April 3, 2006]

The 47 seats on the Council are distributed geographically, with 13 seats for Africa, 13 for Asia, six for Eastern Europe, eight for Latin America and the Caribbean, and seven for Western Europe and Other Countries (which included the United States, Canada, and Israel). Each year, one-third of Council members are elected to three-year terms. Each can run for re-election for a second term, but then must go off the Council for at least one year before running again.

The Strategy

After the creation of the Human Rights Council, a broad-based international coalition of NGOs came together to help ensure that elections for the Council resulted in the selection of member states that would actively promote and protect human rights, rather than simply seek to shield their own practices from international scrutiny. The NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council began in 2007 with eight members, representing a diverse group of national, regional and international human rights organizations.5 By 2009, its core membership included 14 NGOs representing all regions of the world.

Beginning in 2007, the Coalition ran successful annual campaigns to defeat some of the worst human rights violators from election to the Human Rights Council, including Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Azerbaijan. It engaged NGOs from across regions, international figures including former heads of state and Nobel Peace Prize winners, and NGOs from within the countries concerned to highlight the abusive human rights records of candidate countries and vocally oppose their election to the Human Rights Council on the grounds that they did not meet General Assembly’s requirements for Human Rights Council membership.

2007: Belarus

In 2007, Belarus ran for election to the Human Rights Council despite a history of gross and systematic human rights abuses. Just a few months earlier, the UN General Assembly had adopted a resolution expressing deep concerns over a litany of abuses, including the country’s failure to hold free and fair elections, arbitrary use of state power against opposition candidates, routine harassment and arrest of political and civil society activists, harassment and detention of journalists, implication of government officials in the enforced disappearance or summary execution of opposition politicians and journalists, the forced closure of the University of Belarus, the harassment and prosecution of human right defenders, and closure of civil society organizations [General Assembly resolution 61/175, December 19, 2006].

In March 2006, the president of Belarus was re-elected to a third term with more than 80 percent of the vote in an election that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded failed to meet standards for democratic elections. The government had severely persecuted leaders of opposition parties both before and after its March 2006 national elections. It harassed opposition candidates and campaign workers, and sentenced political party leaders to jail for participating in protests.

The government stifled both freedom of the press and association by criminalizing adverse media coverage, refusing to investigate or prosecute the murder of journalists, and curbed the right to peaceful assembly through criminal code provisions and violently dispersing, arresting and fining peaceful protesters. In 2004, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe accused high-ranking Belarusian officials of involvement in the disappearances of the former Interior Minister, the Prime Minister, electoral commission chairman, and an independent journalist.

Not surprisingly, the NGO Coalition argued that Belarus “does not come close to meeting the requirements” for membership on the Human Rights Council. It stated that Belarus failed both of the Council’s key criteria of upholding the highest standards of human rights and fully cooperating with the Council. It pointed out that Belarus had refused to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus to visit the country, and stated that this fact alone “should be sufficient to deny Belarus a seat on the council” [NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council, “Say No to Belarus,” May 10, 2007 statement]. The special rapporteur had noted the “absolute refusal to cooperate on the part of the government of Belarus”, including its refusal of all visit requests, of all efforts to constructive dialogue, and of any governmental response to the rapporteur’s conclusions and recommendations.

The NGO Coalition initiated a “No on Belarus” campaign, setting up a website that highlighted Belarus’ poor human rights record and contrasted its pledges for its Human Rights Council membership with its actual practices. It urged individuals and organizations to send faxes and emails to their country’s UN ambassador to vote against Belarus in the Council elections.

The Coalition mobilized some 40 human rights and democracy organizations from around the globe to send a joint letter to all UN ambassadors three weeks before the vote, opposing Belarus’ candidacy. The letter highlighted Belarus’ extremely poor human rights record, its failure to cooperate with special procedure mandate-holders, and the findings of the various European and UN bodies that had condemned human rights abuses by Belarus. It concluded that the election of Belarus would damage the credibility not only of the Human Rights Council but of the General Assembly.

The Coalition engaged former Czech president Václav Havel, who issued a statement ten days before the vote stating that Belarus’ human rights record was deteriorating rather than improving, and that even Belarusians working in human rights organizations rejected the candidacy of their own country. Havel stated that he considered Belarus’ candidacy to the Human Rights Council “to be a mockery of the efforts of all liberal-minded Belarusians and the international community to achieve free and democratic conditions in the country.” [Václav Havel, “Statement on the Candidacy of Belarus for Membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council,” May 7, 2007, issued by Civic Belarus].

Initially, Slovenia and Belarus were running unopposed for two Eastern European regional seats on the Council. Members of the Coalition urged member states to encourage additional candidates. Just two days before the election, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its candidacy. The US, France, UK, and Canada coordinated outreach to some 150 member states, urging them to support Bosnia and Herzegovina’s election.

During the May 17, 2009 elections, Belarus was defeated by a large margin. Slovenia easily won election with 168 votes. In a second round of voting, Bosnia and Herzegovina won 112 votes, while Belarus received only 72 – falling far short of the absolute majority required for election.

2008: Sri Lanka

In 2008, six Asian governments—Bahrain, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Timor Leste—competed for four seats for the Asian region on the Human Rights Council. The NGO Coalition campaigned against Sri Lanka, which had been first elected to the Council when it was created in 2006, and was running for re-election. A coalition spokesperson said, “Many countries have human rights problems, but Sri Lanka truly stands out amongst this year’s candidates. [It] is the Asian state in this year’s election which most clearly fails to meet the Council’s membership standards.” [Michael Anthony, programme coordinator of the Asian Human Rights Commission, cited in NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council, “UN: Reject Sri Lanka’s Bid for Human Rights Council,” May 5, 2008, press release]

Sri Lankan government forces had been implicated in a wide range of serious human rights abuses, including hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, widespread torture, arbitrary detention, and complicity in the recruitment of child soldiers. In 2007, hundreds of people were detained under emergency regulations that gave the government broad powers of arrest and detention without charge. The regulations were used to conduct mass arrests of ethnic Tamils and to detain journalists, political opponents, and human rights activists. Between January 2006 and June 2007, more than 1,100 new disappearances or abductions were reported, the vast majority Tamils. The rate of new cases reported in 2007 to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances was the highest in the world. [Human Rights Watch, World Report 2008]

When Sri Lanka first was elected to the Council in 2006, it pledged to implement recommendations from UN bodies. However, it failed to do so. It ignored the recommendations of UN human rights experts, obstructed their work, and publicly attacked UN officials who were openly critical of the government. Senior Sri Lankan government officials accused the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and a UN Special Advisor for Children and Armed Conflict of being “terrorists” or terrorist sympathizers.

The NGO Coalition worked closely with Sri Lankan-based NGOs, who issued a letter several weeks ahead of the election urging member states to reject Sri Lanka’s bid for re-election. The Sri Lankan NGOs said that while Sri Lanka had served on the Council, it had “presided over a grave deterioration of human rights protection” and had “used its membership in the Human Rights Council to protect itself from scrutiny.” They argued that rejecting Sri Lanka’s bid for Council membership would help to hold the Sri Lankan government “accountable for the grave state of human rights in the country.” [Sri Lankan NGOs Oppose Sri Lanka’s HRC Candidacy, April 28, 2008]

A week later, the Coalition sent UN ambassadors a letter signed by 20 national and international NGOs urging them to withhold their vote for Sri Lanka. Days before the election, a group of 84 Asian NGOs signed an open letter issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission, stating that “a vote for Sri Lanka is a vote for disappearances, widespread torture, extrajudicial killings and impunity. It is a vote to undermine the Human Rights Council and therefore a vote against victims of human rights the world over.” [Asian Human Rights Commission, “Asian NGOS call on UN member states to reject Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Council election bid,” May 17, 2008]

Representatives from other key regional networks also made public statements. For example, Salvador Herencia, legal adviser with the Andean Commission of Jurists, drew parallels between the abuses in Sri Lanka and the history of several Latin American states: “Sri Lanka’s record of torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings should lead Latin American countries to oppose electing such an abusive government to the Human Rights Council.” [Human Rights Watch, “UN: Reject Sri Lanka’s Bid for Human Rights Council,” May 5, 2008 press release]

The Coalition successfully engaged Nobel Peace Prize winners Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who each published op-eds or statements about the Council elections during the weeks leading up to the vote. Pérez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his opposition to disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture by the Argentine military government, compared the history of his own country to the abuses committed by Sri Lankan government forces. In a commentary in Página 12 in Buenos Aires, he said, As Latin Americans know all too well, there are few crimes more horrible for a government to commit than summarily removing its own citizens from their homes and families, often late at night, never to be heard from again. … Latin American governments can do a great service to the people of Sri Lanka by rejecting their government’s candidacy for the Human Rights Council. [Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, “Sri Lanka y la ONU”, Página 12, DATE]

Archbishop Tutu published a commentary in The Guardian of London, stating that Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses “are among the most serious imaginable,” and that “a government which tortures and kidnaps its own people has no place on the world’s leading human rights body.” [Desmond Tutu, “No Right to Be There,” The Guardian, May 15, 2009]

Despite aggressive campaigning by the Sri Lankan government and its New York-based ambassador, Sri Lanka failed in its bid for re-election. On May 21, 2008, the General Assembly elected Japan with 155, Bahrain with 142, South Korea with 139, and Pakistan with 114 votes. Sri Lanka received 101 votes.

The Coalition issued a public statement welcoming the results. “We applaud UN members for rejecting an abusive state which has used its position on the Human Rights Council not to promote human rights, but to protect itself and other violator states from scrutiny,” said a coalition spokesman. “The defeat of Sri Lanka this year, and of Belarus last year, will help discourage other human rights violators from seeking or winning election to the council.” [NGO Coalition for an Effective Human Rights Council, “UN: Sri Lanka’s Defeat a Victory for Human Rights Council,” May 21, 2008 press release]

2009: Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia

A challenge faced by the Coalition in each election for the Human Rights Council was that many regional groups chose not to run competitive slates. Instead, the number of candidates often was equal to the number of available seats, virtually guaranteeing the election of each state running.

In 2009, only 20 governments ran for the available 18 seats, with competitive elections in only 2 of the 5 regions—Eastern Europe and Africa. Nevertheless, the Coalition took public positions against the re-election of five members of the Human Rights Council: Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Of the five, only Azerbaijan and Russia were running in competitive elections, competing with Hungary for the two seats available in the Eastern European region.

The Coalition criticized the failure of regional groups to mount competitive elections, saying that UN member states should have the opportunity to select the best human rights proponents that each region had to offer. A spokesperson for the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development said in a public statement that “the lack of real choice in so many regions suggests that many countries have gone back to putting politics and vote trading ahead of human rights and an effective Human Rights Council.” [Yap Swee Seng, executive director of FORUM-ASIA, in Human Rights Watch, “UN: Elect Rights-Respecting States to Human Rights Council,” April 21, 2009 press release]

The Coalition included the Western group in its criticism. During the Bush administration, the US had shunned the Human Rights Council, in part because of its repeated criticism of Israel. Once Barack Obama was elected president, many NGOs urged the US to reverse its position and re-engage with the Council. Human rights advocates welcomed the US’ decision to run for election in 2009, but were concerned when New Zealand withdrew its candidacy after the US announcement, leaving a non-competitive slate. The US, Belgium, and Norway ran for 3 seats open in the Western group.

On its website, the Coalition highlighted human rights concerns in Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, stating that each fell far short of the “highest” standards of human rights required for Council membership. In China, it cited government harassment and prosecution of human rights defenders, repression of ethnic Tibetans and Uighers, sanctions on journalists, the use of administrative detention and “re-education-through-labor,” and forced confessions and torture. It named Cuba as “the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent,” utilizing harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention against journalists and dissidents. It cited concerns in Russia including restrictions and attacks on civil society, abuses in the North Caucasus, racism, xenophobia, and abuse of migrant workers. In Saudi Arabia, the Coalition highlighted systematic violations of the rights of women, unfair trials and arbitrary detention of thousands of people, and curbs on freedom of expression and association. [NGOs for an Effective Human Rights Council website]

The Coalition focused particular attention on Azerbaijan, in particular, its harassment and intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders, torture and ill-treatment in police custody, and detention of political prisoners. In Azerbaijan, criticizing the government could bring physical attacks, exorbitant fines, or criminal charges. In 2008 alone, there were 49 incidents involving physical or verbal assaults against journalists. Only 11 of the cases were investigated by the government, and only one brought to trial. Several journalists were convicted on terrorism and other spurious charges for reporting government abuses, and sentenced to up to ten years in prison.

A month ahead of the elections, a group of some 20 Azeri human rights and democracy advocates, professors, lawyers and journalists wrote to members of the UN General Assembly, urging states to withhold their vote from Azerbaijan. In the three years that Azerbaijan had served on the Human Rights Council, they said “the human rights situation has gotten worse, not better.” They addressed their own precarious situation in the country: “We, as journalists and human rights defenders, face a constant risk that the government will bring politically motivated criminal or civil charges against [us]. Harassment, intimidation, and physical attacks on civil society have become common. Torture in detention is widespread. The government’s unwillingness to address and prevent these abuses means near-total impunity for the perpetrators and lack of justice for us.” [“Azerbaijani civil society says vote no on Azerbaijan,” letter to members of the UN General Assembly, April 14, 2009]

Approximately five weeks before the election, Coalition members began meeting with ambassadors and other government representatives to the UN in New York to discuss the records of candidate states and why they should withhold their votes from the five countries identified by the Coalition. By the time of the elections, the Coalition had met individually with 92 governments.

A week before the election, on May 5, 2009, members of the Coalition wrote to UN member states, highlighting Azerbaijan’s attacks on press freedom, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and trade unionists, the detention of political prisoners, and the widespread use of torture in police facilities and prisons. [“Human rights groups around the world call for Azerbaijan’s defeat,” May 5, 2009 letter to members of the UN General Assembly]

The day before the election, the New York Times ran an op-ed from Václav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, highlighting the flawed elections and lack of competition. The op-ed was widely read, circulated, and quoted, including by the news media. “Imagine an election where the results are largely preordained and a number of candidates are widely recognized as unqualified,” Havel said. “Any supposedly democratic ballot conducted in this way would be considered a farce.” Drawing on his own experience, he said, “Like the citizens of Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, I know what it is like to live in a country where the state controls public discourse, suppresses opposition and severely curtails freedom of expression. It is thus doubly dismaying for me to see the willingness of democracies in Latin America and Asia to sit by and watch the council further lose its credibility and respect”. [Václav Havel, “A Table for Tyrants,” New York Times, May 11, 2009]

In the May 12, 2009 election, Azerbaijan suffered a humiliating defeat. With only 89 votes, it failed to even reach the 97-vote threshold that was necessary for election. As expected, the other targets of the campaign—China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—were all reelected, although Saudi Arabia, China and Cuba came in at the very bottom of their respective regional slates.

The Coalition put out an immediate statement following the election. It lauded the result on Azerbaijan, which it called “a wake-up call” to Azerbaijan to improve its record, and a hopeful sign to Azerbaijani human rights defenders. The statement also highlighted the African group’s first competitive elections, calling it an important milestone.

The Coalition continued to draw attention to the lack of competition in key regions. A spokesperson from Corporación Humanas Centro Regional de Dereschose Humanos y Justicia de Género criticized Latin American countries for allowing Cuba to “stroll into the council with no reforms or concrete steps towards change.” [Lorena Fries, president of Corporación Humanas Centro Regional de Dereschose Humanos y Justicia de Género, in Human Rights Watch, “UN: Lack of Competition Mars Vote on Human Rights Council,” May 12, 2009 press release]

The Coalition pointed to the defeat of Azerbaijan and the low vote totals of China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba as evidence of the value of competitive elections. It argued that if there had been competitive elections, China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba could have been defeated, particularly since the election’s secret ballot could shield states from reprisals from powerful states such as China.

The elections received extensive international news coverage, in part because of the US’ first-time election to the Council. Spokespersons for the Coalition were frequently quoted, and the lack of non-competitive slates was repeatedly highlighted. Apart from the US, the countries most often mentioned in the media reports were those that the Coalition had cited for their appalling human rights records. For these states, the many negative media references were painful and embarrassing, despite their election victories.

Analysis The advocacy by the Coalition clearly had impact on the votes of UN member states.

Factors that Coalition members identified as important included the following:

Cross-regional and national participation: Coalition members believed that engaging NGOs across regions and from within the countries concerned was essential to avoid accusations of Western imperialism. According to one Coalition member, the letters from local NGOs were particularly influential. “Ambassadors are more convinced by voices from within those countries than they are from us saying the same thing.” [Author interview with Elizabeth Sepper, June 19, 2009] During the 2009 campaign, Azerbaijani groups were particularly enthusiastic to campaign against Azerbaijan, so it was their letter that kicked off the campaign.

Op-eds from influential figures: Op-eds from Vaclav Havel and Desmond Tutu shortly before the elections were widely read and discussed among UN diplomats. In particular, Western Europeans were sensitive to Havel’s criticism of non-competitive elections, which will likely make it more difficult for Western Europe to mount clean slates in the future. The 2008 campaign against Sri Lanka also made a particular effort to get specific op-eds placed in regional media.

Campaigning against countries in non-competitive elections: The 2009 campaign had little chance of defeating China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, since they were running in non-competitive elections. However, Coalition members agreed that it was important to campaign against such states, since campaigns that only targeted states running in competitive fields would create a disincentive for states to support competitive elections. A Coalition member said some states claimed that China had engineered a non-competitive Asian slate in large part to try to escape criticism on its own record. She said, “That says to me that we made the right decision to campaign against them. We touched a nerve. China never thought they wouldn’t be re-elected, but they put resources into their campaign because we made them nervous.” [Author interview with Elizabeth Sepper, June 19, 2009]

Criticizing “clean slates”: The Coalition’s vocal criticism of clean slates “hit a huge nerve, especially with the Western Europeans. Everyone was talking about it at the UN. It had huge media impact. Every journalist picked up on it because we hammered this point. Some of the wires made it a centerpiece of their reporting.”

New governments: The Coalition chose not to campaign against either Bangladesh or Pakistan following the election of new governments in each state. Although both governments had terrible human rights records, the Coalition decided it was important to give the new government a chance to demonstrate its commitment to human rights. Coalition members believed this was a good decision, particularly in 2009 when many UN member states asked why the Coalition did not campaign against the United States because of its record of torture and abuses at Guantanamo. Coalition members were able to reply that the newly-elected Obama administration deserved a chance to reform the US’ record.

Background information on human rights abuses: Coalition members said that they were surprised at the shallow knowledge that many UN ambassadors had regarding the human rights records of candidates for the Human Rights Council. One African government told a Coalition member that they had changed several of their votes at the last moment as a specific result of the Coalition’s advocacy and the materials it had provided.

Challenges Engagement with local NGOs: While in some cases, such as Azerbaijan, local NGOs were eager to participate in the campaign, in other cases local NGOs were anxious about potential reprisals. In the 2009 campaign against Cuba and Saudi Arabia, the Coalition was advised not to attempt to contact local civil society groups for fear of their safety. In 2008, Sri Lankan NGOs debated the merits of the campaign for quite a while before deciding to participate. In 2009, some Asian NGOs took a much lower profile than in previous years because of concerns about China’s power and influence. Some Latin American NGOs were also concerned about playing a public role in 2009 because of Cuba’s influence.

Vote trading and non-disclosure of votes: As of mid-2009, only Mexico had made a public commitment not to trade votes or disclose their voting intentions. During the 2009 elections vote trading was common and many governments were pressured to reveal their intentions and pledge their votes to particular candidates. While the Coalition has urged governments as a matter of national policy to support competitive elections and not trade votes, few have done so. Many express support in principle for competitive elections, but still vote trade.

States’ reluctance to compete: Some states argue that it is too “humiliating” or “traumatic” for states who are defeated in competitive elections for the Human Rights Council. For example, in 2008, Spain lost election by only one vote after several rounds of voting. Such defeats are considered particularly difficult after a state invests significant resources in their campaign or are the only state not elected in a region. The Coalition has countered that one solution is to ensure that twice as many countries run for election as there are available seats, to avoid any one country being singled out in defeat.

Timing: To create a competitive slate in Asia in 2009, Asian NGOs lobbied Nepal and Maldives, urging them to put their candidacies forward. However, the initiative was too late as the Asian group had already made its decision in December 2008 regarding its slate. NGOs in Latin America also lobbied Costa Rica, Panama and Guatemala to run, but discovered that decisions about the slate had already been made in the regional bloc.


The campaign achieved remarkable success, by defeating three abusive governments for election, shining a spotlight on abusive practices by governments that ran un-opposed, and successfully challenging the practice of non-competitive elections. The campaign effectively combined the assets of local NGOs and civil society who spoke powerfully and credibly regarding the abuses of their own governments, international NGOs who were able to deploy advocacy personnel for intensive lobbying of UN missions in New York, and international public figures who gained significant attention to the elections through personal statements in influential media outlets. The campaign put abusive governments on notice that they are not able to run for election to the Human Rights Council without significant public attention to their human rights records, and signaled to other governments that continued vote trading and non-competitive elections will be met with continued criticism.

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