New York — Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia are set to join the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) despite strong opposition from activists and organisations who say the countries’ governments are among the world's worst human rights offenders.

The UN General Assembly later on Tuesday will elect 15 new members to the 47-nation council. Seats are allotted according to regional groups, and Russia, as well as Cuba, are running unopposed. China and Saudi Arabia are among five countries contesting four seats.

“Uncompetitive UN votes like this one make a mockery of the word ‘election’,” Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch, said. “Regional slates should be competitive so states have a choice. When there’s no choice, countries should refuse to vote for unfit candidates.”

The council has a long history of including members with  chequered rights records. Venezuela was elected in 2019 despite being accused by the UN of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture.

That does not mean the council will not shine a spotlight on human rights violators. A UN expert appointed by the council, for instance, recommended probing the role of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. A separate panel in March said Russia’s military conducted “indiscriminate” bombardments against civilians in Syria last year.

US withdrawal

But rights groups say countries accused of violations try to use their seats to prevent scrutiny of their abuses. The US has argued that the council ignores widespread violations by several offenders while focusing too much on Israel, prompting President Donald Trump to withdraw from the group in 2018.

In addition to Saudi Arabia and China, Nepal, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan are vying for four seats in the Asia group. Ivory Coast, Malawi, Gabon and Senegal are vying uncontested for four African seats. Mexico, Bolivia, and Cuba are running unopposed for three Latin American seats while the UK and France are seeking the two West European seats. Russia and Ukraine are seeking the two East European seats.

Russia’s ascension to the council would come as Europe takes steps to to retaliate against President Vladimir Putin’s government over the poisoning of Russia’s top opposition leader, Alexey Navalny. Meanwhile, 39 countries denounced China earlier in October for its treatment of ethnic minorities and for curtailing freedoms in Hong Kong.


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