Updated: Nov 3, 2022
By Jamil Chade and Gunilla von Hall
October 31, 2019
Whenever I enter Room XX of the Palais des Nations for the meetings of the UN Human Rights Council, that multicolored ceiling, full of stalactites, makes me think of a cave. Perhaps that was precisely what Miquel Barceló, the Mallorcan artist who designed the roof, intended: to put the world in one place to debate its future. But when I look at the signs with the names of the countries sitting there, I ask myself: who exactly do those diplomats represent? And with what interests?
Two weeks ago, this question once again came to my mind, after the UN General Assembly in New York elected the new members of the Human Rights Council for the next three years. On the list of elected members are Nicolas Maduro's Venezuela and Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil.
No friends of human rights
The Venezuelan is accused of leading a repressive regime, while the Brazilian is the target of serious questioning due to his controversial positions on human rights. Maduro’s regime has presided over the economic collapse of his country, while Bolsonaro makes sure a month doesn’t go by without praising dictators like Augusto Pinochet. Caracas has seen the exodus of millions of its citizens, while Brasilia faces international distrust of its environmental and social policies. And, yet, both will be the South American representatives on the Council.
In addition to the discomfort that these representatives could generate to the victims of human rights abuses, I went in search of a response to the votes they received. And the conclusions are clear: the vote did not take into account the issue of human rights.
In order to obtain support, Bolsonaro's Brazil simply negotiated reciprocity agreements with other governments For each vote received, Brasilia would offer a similar gesture of support to the country in another election. Both inside and outside the UN system.
France's surprising decision
The strategy even worked with France, a government that has been reacting harshly against Bolsonaro. Paris gave its vote to Brazil and, in return, received a promise from the Brazilian government that it will support France’s election to the Committee Against Torture.
Another Brazilian strategy was not to lead a campaign against its Venezuelan rival. Despite attacking Maduro whenever it could in public, Brasilia avoided asking countries not to choose Caracas for the Council. This attitude was harshly criticized by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, which campaigned against Maduro's election. But Brazil was more interested in securing its seat, and for that it needed the votes of Venezuela's allies in Africa and the Middle East. It worked.
For months, Brazil also tried to block a parallel candidacy from Costa Rica. Officially, the Central American country's campaign would aim to overthrow Caracas. But by Brasilia's accounts, the risk was that Costa Rica and Brazil would compete for the same votes, threatening Bolsonaro's victory. Costa Rica only entered the race with one week left and was unable to revert the votes already promised.
Ironically, if Maduro wants to thank someone for his election to the Council, he should pick up the phone and call his biggest rival in the region: Bolsonaro.
As for the victims of human rights abuses? Well, they can always wait.
Gunilla von Hall responds
Well put. Deal making and vote exchange behind locked doors are routine within the UN. But in this case, it is particularly sneaky, ironic, and heartbreaking for human rights victims.
I think most troubling, though, is the human rights council itself. Have a look at 20 of the members after the last election; Eritrea, Philippines, Venezuela, Brazil, China, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cameroon, Cuba, Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Bangladesh, Somalia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, and Iraq.
How credible is the Human Rights Council?
Several of them have been widely criticised for severe human rights abuses. Most are not democracies; few have representative governments. Fewer still have incentives to commit to universal human rights. In other words, more than 40 percent of the members of the Human Rights Council have poor human rights records. How can the council's work and resolutions be seen as credible and impartial with these members? Is it even reasonable to have taxpayers' money spent on their time-consuming deliberations?
But it is hard to think of an alternative. You cannot have only Norways and Switzerlands on the council; all UN members have the right to be elected. But then comes the broader question: do any of the severe human rights abusers care about condemning resolutions from well-heeled diplomats in affluent Geneva? Does name-and-shame work to create a world more respectful of human rights? I remain sceptic.
Jamil, sorry to sound so terribly cynical. I realize that the need for some kind of UN human rights watchdog is more pressing than ever, not least looking at what is happening right now around protests in countries like Chile, Bolivia, Lebanon, Hong Kong, and Iraq. But I am not convinced that today's human rights council is the answer.
Jamil Chade is a Geneva-based European reporter for Brazilian news group UOL.
Gunilla von Hall is foreign correspondent for Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet in Geneva.
The format of this article was inspired by the Financial Times' Swamp Notes.