Disappointments at the UN, but we must not let the challenges obscure the good that it can achieve

Earlier this month, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted to elect 14 new members to the Human Rights Council (HRC) to serve from 2023 to 2025. Among those elected were Sudan and Vietnam. The former was selected in a clean slate election, meaning that the number of candidates equaled the number of seats available, while the latter defeated Afghanistan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). 

The election of both of these states is deeply disappointing.  

Sudan is currently led by a military leader who seized power illegally from the civilian-led transitional government in an October 2021 coup, and where the past year has been characterized by the killing and brutalising of peaceful protesters, and attempts to reverse the limited human rights gains made under the transitional government, including in relation to the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). 

The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has led the northern part of Vietnam since 1954, and took control of the rest of the country in 1975, following the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. During that time, the VCP has repeatedly violated human rights, including FoRB and land rights, whilst routinely targeting those who request or advocate for such rights with harassment, arbitrary detention, imprisonment, physical violence and even torture

Neither state is fit to serve on a body “responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe,” yet despite competition from other states, including one with a better human rights record, members of the UNGA still saw fit to allow Vietnam to occupy a seat on the Council. The failure of the African States to put forward a viable candidate to compete with Sudan is equally lamentable. 

There were some positive developments. Venezuela, another state with a questionable human rights record, was not elected, losing out to Chile and Costa Rica, where human rights are better protected, and the aforementioned defeat of Afghanistan is also welcome in light of the serious human rights concerns which have arisen following the Taliban takeover in August 2021. These outcomes highlight further the merits of competitive, and therefore genuine, elections.  

However, in electing states such as these to the Council, which already counts among its members the likes of China, Cuba, Eritrea, India and Pakistan, to name just a few states which are ill-disposed to human rights, UN Member States risk significantly undermining the body’s integrity and credibility. 

That integrity had already been called into serious question days before the elections, when the HRC failed to pass a procedural draft decision that would have enabled a debate on the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) during the next Council session in March 2023. 

The draft decision was presented jointly by the United States, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Had it passed, it would have marked the first time that the situation of human rights in China was on the Council’s agenda. 

The human rights crisis in the XUAR has been widely documented, and is believed to involve the mass arbitrary detention of between one and three million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in so-called ‘vocational education and training centres’, while those who are not detained are subjected to extensive and intrusive surveillance and restrictions on their everyday activities. 

There is a wealth of evidence to support these claims, and in August 2022 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a report which concluded that: “The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups, pursuant to law and policy, in context of restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights enjoyed individually and collectively, may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” 

Despite this, 19 countries voted against the draft decision, while a further 11 abstained, with just 17 initially voting in favour. The next day, Ukraine requested in the explanation of votes under Agenda Item 2 that the records of the Council’s proceedings reflect their position in favour of the draft decision, having previously abstained. However, under the rules and practices of the HRC the result will remain as it is, and even if it had been changed the draft decision would still have been defeated by one vote. 

Developments like contribute to criticisms that the Council is increasingly compromised, and the election of states like Sudan and Vietnam will do nothing to help matters.  

However, the HRC can still effect positive change. Even as the decision on China was voted down, vital resolutions on Russia and Ethiopia were voted through. 

We must not let the challenges obscure the good that the UN can achieve when it works well. CSW will continue to hold the organisation to account where it falls short of its mandate. However, we will also continue to engage with the HRC as we work towards a world in which everyone is free to believe. 

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley