Major Changes Ahead: China and Russia Joining the UN Human Rights Council

For the next three years, both China and Russia will play an important role on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), as both nations have been elected onto the body.

The vote largely works by countries within regions reaching private bargains on the nations that will stand, mostly with the objective of ensuring that all the candidates stand unopposed within their region.

All 193 UN countries are eligible to vote in each region.

Both China and Saudi Arabia competed with Uzbekistan, Nepal and Pakistan for four seats. China managed to attract 139 votes whilst Saudi Arabia came fifth with just 90 votes. They were beaten by Nepal, which managed to obtain 150 votes. This meant that Saudi Arabia was the only nation in the five-way contest that failed to win a place on the 47-seat body.

This is a Substantial Blow to the UNHRC

This is a devastating blow for the UNHRC as their task is to promote and protect human rights worldwide by investigating alleged breaches. However, for nations that still want to prevent China and Russia from acquiring seats on the body, the UN General Assembly is now the only institution that can effectively stop both countries from becoming UNHRC members.

The UN General Assembly possesses 96 affirmative votes so if enough nations band together they could, in theory, block the controversial appointments.

Regardless, this is not the first time that such an incident has occurred. The UNHRC was established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights precisely because its predecessor had been accused of allowing nations to protect themselves.

The UNHRC is Weak Without US Membership

The idea was to build more safeguards and accountability into its replacement but this effort has failed to a large extent. Former US ambassador Nikki Haley defended the Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to withdraw from the UNHRC because it consisted of states like Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Venezuela at the time.

Despite this, the UNHRC has achieved some success. For example, in the past it has dispatched fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry and produced reports on grave human rights abuses, including war crimes from Syria to North Korea to Myanmar. But having China and Russia as members entails significant changes for the body for so many reasons.

Firstly, without US participation the UNHRC is even more vulnerable to the influence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as there is no effective superpower that can block their attempts to weaken the institution from within.

The reason why the US withdrew from the body is because the Trump administration’s demands for reform were never met, which included changing the way Israel was condemned for its treatment toward Palestinians.

The UNHRC has become renowned for its biased treatment toward Israel and for not holding other authoritarian regimes that occupy seats on the body to account.

UNHRC Outlook for the Near Future

This is why Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, accused the UNHRC of failing in its duty to protect human rights by allowing several countries widely criticized for their human rights records to join the institution.

The UNHRC’s legitimacy is weakened by continually allowing totalitarian countries to join the body, and this will make it harder for them to tackle human rights abuses. For example, China was a member of the UNHRC before the recent election and the body failed to condemn Beijing’s appalling treatment of Uighur Muslims residing in China.

Russia also has an equally questionable human rights record and that has become more apparent following the poisoning of Russian politician Aleksej Navalny.

Those who were hoping that the UNHRC’s election would transform the way the body is run must be disappointed. Unless the General Assembly can stop China and Russia from from joining the UNHRC at the last minute, nothing is going to change for the institution in the foreseeable future.