More than 70 international human rights groups are calling for an end to voting practices in the UN Human Rights Council that have allowed countries responsible for human rights violations to be elected.
In a letter to members of the UN General Assembly, 74 non-governmental organizations asked countries to support an end to voting blocs and vote exchanges, practices that prevent competition and thus undermine the work of the Council, which is widely criticized for its anti-Israel focus.
"The election of Council members this year failed to live up to these principles," the groups wrote. "There were serious impediments to electing the countries most clearly committed to human rights that each region has to offer. These impediments include: Lack of candidates and competition; endorsed regional slates; late, absent or insubstantial pledges and commitments; and widespread vote trading."
Sent a month before the 47-member Council will convene in Geneva, the letter, signed by 74 groups and publicized by UN Watch, follows a change in US policy that resulted in the United States seeking membership in the Council for the first time since 2006, when it replaced the old council on human rights.
Ambassador Susan Rice, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said the decision to join the Human Rights Council in May was part of the Obama administration's "new era of engagement."
"Through three election cycles, the United States refused to seek a seat, dismissing the Council as flawed and anti-Israel - which obviously it is," she said during a speech at New York University's Center for Global Affairs on August 12. "But what did this approach achieve?"
"We join this body well aware that, in many ways, the Human Rights Council is the poster child for what ails the UN," she said. "But sitting on the outside will not stop the posturing in Geneva nor defend those bleeding under the boots of despots."
She said the United States would work to "reduce customary divisions" and "We will demand fair treatment for Israel."
However, the letter did not mention Israel, instead focusing on voting blocs. Only 20 countries vied for 18 seats, the group said, depriving voting countries of "real choice."
De facto endorsements by regional groups and vote trading meant candidates were not elected based on their human rights records.
Israel is the elephant in the room, according to Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, who said the issue is not just bloc voting. "The main problem is the nature of the votes," he said. Of 47 voting members, 30 will automatically support any anti-Israel measure. "Today's Human Rights Council has turned into the most anti-Israel body in the history of mankind," he said. "Resolutions are all one-sided, they make prior determinations of Israeli guilt" that fuel extremism.
He characterized the body as obsessed with Israel; out of 32 resolutions criticizing countries accused of human rights violations, 26 have been against Israel. With the vast number of human rights victims ignored, he said, voting members have also assaulted basic freedoms of speech and religion and worked to undermine the Council's mechanism to scrutinize human rights offenders.
US membership could have an impact, he said, but not overnight.
"If the United States joins the Council and defends the principles that are under attack," Neuer said, that "will justify its membership." He said he was hopeful, given diplomatic moves such as not participating in the second Durban conference. But, he said, the United States would need to call countries like China and Saudi Arabia to task. "If everyone leaves the Council and they're all happy, something is wrong," he said.