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UN draws criticism for additions to its Human Rights Council

Conference officers hold up empty ballot boxes before

Conference officers hold up empty ballot boxes before collecting ballots from delegates at the election of new members of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday at the UN headquarters in Manhattan. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/MANUEL ELIAS

UNITED NATIONS — The UN General Assembly voted in 18 new members to its Human Rights Council on Friday, but several of the nations, critics said, have well-documented records of violating human rights themselves.

The countries voted in are: Argentina, Austria, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Eritrea, Fiji, India, Italy, the Philippines, Somalia, Togo and Uruguay.

The election of Cameroon irked local activists who said the central African country of about 25 million people has a long history of marginalizing and committing violence against its own people — and is right now embroiled in an escalating humanitarian crisis bordering on civil war.

“The day that a country where a genocide is actually happening as we speak is elected to the Human Rights Council is a very sad day,” said Patrice Nganang, a Stony Brook University literature professor who was detained in his native Cameroon for three weeks in December after he wrote articles critical of the country’s president, Paul Biya.

The 85-year-old Biya has been in power since 1982 and ran in the last election Oct. 7 for another seven-year term. Election results probably will not be available until later this month. 

John Chichester of Northport, who is raising money for refugees from the two-year crisis in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, said it is hypocritical for Cameroon to serve on a panel that will monitor the human rights records of others.

“In my estimation they have no right being on the Human Rights Council," said Chichester, who runs the Ambas Bay Refugee Foundation, adding “but neither do so many other really bad actors.”

The vote was open to all 193 member states of the United Nations. India was the top vote-getter, with 188 votes cast in its favor. The countries ran unopposed for the three-year slots, so each member that sought a seat was successful.

One vote was cast for the United States — a write-in, though the United States withdrew from the council this year citing the incongruity in the fact that some members of the council are deemed violators of human rights themselves, and the stated mandate of the body is to monitor human rights.

Monica Grayley, spokeswoman for UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garces, said the members vote by secret ballot, so she could not say which country cast a vote for the United States.

“Yet again, countries with poor human rights records ran uncontested,” said Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN. “This lack of standards continues to undermine the organization and demonstrates again why the United States was right to withdraw from it earlier this year. The United States will continue to support reforms that would make the Human Rights Council credible. More importantly, the United States will continue to be the world’s human rights leader regardless of the suspect composition and poor decisions of the Human Rights Council.”

The UN General Assembly itself acknowledges the glaring contradiction on its website, where it spells out the council’s duties including “launching fact-finding missions and establishing commissions of inquiry into specific situations.”

The group “meets three times a year to review the human rights records of all UN Member States, in a special process designed to give countries the chance to present the actions they have taken, and what they’ve done, to advance human rights.”

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