Saudi Arabia failed in its bid to win a seat on the controversial U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday, but other nations with abysmal rights records, including China and Russia, made it on to the 47-nation body.
"Today is a black day for human rights," Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based rights group, said ahead of the vote.
The General Assembly elected by secret ballot Bolivia, Britain, China, Cuba, France, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Senegal, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. They will serve three-year terms beginning Jan. 1, 2021.
The outcome of the vote was mostly preordained, with candidates put forward by regional groups that set forth the same number of candidates as seats. The only contested group was Asia-Pacific, which saw Saudi Arabia lose to China, Pakistan, Nepal and Uzbekistan for the four available seats.
Nations elected to the Geneva-based HRC are expected to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” both at home and abroad. Human rights groups have strongly criticized many of the new members for having shoddy or appalling rights records.
“Serial rights abusers should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director for New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch.
He pointed to China’s “massive” violation of human rights at home and efforts to undermine “the international human rights system they’re demanding to be a part of.”
China has detained as many as a million ethnic Uighur Muslims in “re-education camps” in its Xinjiang province and cracked down on freedoms in Hong Kong and Tibet.
Russia, which has been accused of poisoning domestic dissidents, has also used its power in the U.N. Security Council 15 times to shield the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Most recently in July, Russia forced the council to cut aid deliveries to millions of Syrians by closing vital border crossing points during the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia and Ukraine took the two available seats in their Eastern European group. In March 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, sparking international outrage.
A joint evaluation from three rights groups — U.N. Watch, Human Rights Foundation and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights — said China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan were unqualified to run for a seat based on their rights’ records. The coalition also deemed Bolivia, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mexico, Nepal, Senegal and Ukraine’s records as “questionable.”
Under President Donald Trump, the United States withdrew from the HRC two years ago. Then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called the council a “cesspool of political bias” that “makes a mockery of human rights,” primarily for its scrutiny of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
"Prior to making this decision, and after our exit, the United States has urged U.N. member states to take immediate action to reform the Council before it became irreparable," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Tuesday. "Unfortunately, those calls went unheeded, and today the U.N. General Assembly once again elected countries with abhorrent human rights records, including China, Russia and Cuba."
Saudi Arabia, which wields financial power in the halls of the United Nations, failed by seven votes to win one of four available seats in the Asia-Pacific regional group.
The kingdom has been involved in a lengthy war in neighboring Yemen that has created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The Saudi crown prince has also come under international scrutiny in the aftermath of the murder and dismemberment two years ago of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Saudi Arabia’s failure to win a seat on the Human Rights Council is a welcome reminder of the need for more competition in U.N. elections,” said HRW’s Charbonneau. “Had there been additional candidates, China, Cuba and Russia might have lost, too. But the addition of these undeserving countries won’t prevent the council from shining a light on abuses and speaking up for victims. In fact, by being on the council, these abusers will be directly in the spotlight.”
The Human Rights Council has come under growing criticism in recent years for the number of rights violators among its rotating membership. Advocates warn that these countries use their status on the council as cover for their abuses.