The United Nations Human Rights Council is Losing Credibility

The election of member states with poor human rights records and the need for institutional reform

by Erika Porco

The United Nations Human Rights Council, responsible for promoting and protecting universal human rights and addressing human rights violations around the world, falls short after the recent election of several member states with serious accusations of rights abuses. The Council recently elected fifteen member states that included the Democratic Republic of Congo, Qatar, and Australia and left many questioning how member states that fail to meet the basic human rights standards within their own countries are in a position to protect human rights within the international community. The United Nation’s acceptance of election bids from countries such as these undermines the principles and credibility of the Council and its ability to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s widespread human rights violations and failure to cooperate with the Council should have disqualified them from consideration for membership on the Human Rights Council. A recent resolution renewed by the Council chose to further review the Congo on the basis of continued violations of civil and political rights committed by government security forces under President Joseph Kabila. These state actors are responsible for delaying elections and ignoring the constitutionally mandated two-term limit on those in power. The President’s government has banned political opposition meetings and demonstrations, jailed opposition supporters and human rights activists without charges, and been responsible for the displacement of over one million people. While all of that may appear to be enough to justify the claim that the Congo should not be responsible for upholding an international standard of human rights, there has been some speculation surrounding the government’s role in the murder of two UN investigators who were killed investigating violence in regions of the Congo in March 2017.  The Congo’s membership on the Human Rights Council sends the wrong signal to a country that is far from exemplary on human rights and tarnishes the credibility of a Council that aims to promote and protect human rights. 

However, the ignorance of the United Nations by electing violating member states to the Council may be self-serving. On an episode of HBO’s Veep, former President Selina Meyer responds to the criticism of the press after failing to condemn the human rights abuses of South Sudan by making a speech at the Arab Conference on Human Rights in Qatar focusing on women’s rights issues. However, after learning Colonel al-Saleh, a Sudanese warlord will be in attendance she decides to refrain from criticizing the human rights record within South Sudan to ensure a deal she has in the works goes through. It’s important to recognize that Meyer only decides to condemn the violation of human rights abuses in South Sudan after being criticized by the media. Meyer’s speech comes from pressure within the international community and a feeling of obligation to address the issue. It is also ironic that a Human Rights Conference is being sponsored by Qatar, who happens to be a member of the Human Rights Council, and also has a record of human rights abuses that surround women’s rights in particular sex trafficking. Due to the satirical nature of Veep, it is deeply unsettling that the current state of international affairs is beginning to mirror a show that is intended to make light of and exaggerate these criticisms. The Human Rights Council cannot ignore a member states human rights violations in order to serve its own agenda. The Council needs to hold violating member states accountable and UN members need to demonstrate support for high membership standards by rejecting human rights abusers from being elected to this body. 

It could be argued for member states such as Australia that, given their past history of abuses a seat on the Council may encourage the state to pay more attention to domestic-level human rights violations. Australia has a terrible record for upholding basic human rights on behalf of the Indigenous people within their country and this position would argue that giving them a seat at the table will encourage them to make real progress in improving Indigenous rights. Unfortunately, I fail to see the merit in this position and how giving them a seat will do anything but reward them for their negative actions by giving them a position of authority they do not deserve. Continuing to elect member states based on this logic, gives them a clean slate that ignores their violations and makes it appear that the international community does not hold them accountable for the violations occurring within their countries.

Although the Human Rights Council was created in order to replace the failing Human Rights Commission, similar patterns are occurring that establish the need for institutional reform. Despite the contributions of the Council through the periodic review process, launch of commissions of inquiry, and the utilization of independent experts to ensure impartial investigation; the Human Rights Council is following in the Commissions footsteps. The recent election of members to the Council shows their unwillingness to address human rights concerns by electing some of the worst rights abusers. Similar to the Commission, if the Council continues down this path they will become discredited for allowing participating countries to use their membership in order to prevent scrutiny of their national records

The Human Rights Council needs to hold elected members to the high standard required by the UN resolution and establish a criteria for membership based on the state’s contribution to upholding these rights. If the Council wishes to set itself apart from the failed Human Rights Commission, it must reform council membership to solidify itself as the UN’s top rights body. The election of countries to the Human Rights Council with a history of abuses goes against the fundamental principles that are the basis of the institution and, if continued, will lead to a lack of credibility amongst the international community.

Erika Porco is a Third Year Political Science student at the University of Western Ontario and has served as a Columnist of The General Assembly since its inception in October 2017. Her area of interests include the United Nations, Human Rights, International law, and Public policy, She can be reached at