x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Qatar's likely election to UN rights group brings controversy

Pressure groups have begun campaigning against a ballot in which all 14 open seats are uncontested in a "clean slate" election.

Moammar Qadafi's Libya is standing for an uncontested seat in the UN's Human Rights Council.
Moammar Qadafi's Libya is standing for an uncontested seat in the UN's Human Rights Council.

NEW YORK // After Iran's withdrawal from today's elections to the UN's top human rights body, pressure groups have begun campaigning against a ballot in which all 14 open seats are uncontested in a "clean slate" election. Rights groups were pleased when Iran pulled out of a vote for the Human Rights Council last month, but are now questioning whether candidates such as Libya, Qatar and Angola should be eligible for a body charged with monitoring rights around the globe.

The voting system for today's ballot in the UN General Assembly offers clean slates in each of five regional groupings, meaning the 14 candidates are almost guaranteed a seat. Hassan Shire Sheikh, director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, said: "States should press candidates to take concrete steps to meet membership standards for the council, and make it clear that their votes depend on it. The General Assembly set a high threshold for membership in the council, and has a duty to enforce it."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran's withdrawal from the race for an Asian group seat last month was for "procedural reasons", but western diplomats believe Tehran was pre-empting embarrassment in the event of polling poorly. Bahey el din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said: "Iran's withdrawal showed that international pressure can improve the membership of the council, and demonstrated the importance of competitive elections for seats,."

Two Middle Eastern nations - Qatar and Libya - are standing for uncontested two-year seats on the 47-nation body, and need to secure only 97 votes, or half the membership of the 192-nation General Assembly, to win. Qatar is running alongside Malaysia, the Maldives and Thailand for one of the Asian group's four open seats. The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development criticised Malaysia for "laws that restrict freedom of expression and academic freedom" and Thailand for failing to "fully investigate the past deaths of 20 human rights defenders".

Meanwhile, the advocacy group Freedom House says Qatar ranks poorly for political rights. Qatar's UN ambassador, Nassir Abdulaziz al Nasser, rejecting the allegations as "unfair", said voting nations would base decisions on "facts, not stories" and pointed to Qatari efforts to resolve the conflict between Sudanese government troops and Darfur rebel groups. A Qatari letter to UN missions said medical care is provided "without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, belief, language, age or disability". Education is "compulsory and free" and the emirate is progressing towards "universal enrolment in elementary schools".

Navi Pillay, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently expressed satisfaction at the "growing effectiveness of the national human-rights institutions" in Qatar, and lauded it for hosting a regional UN human-rights training hub. Libya was given a lower ranking than Qatar in Freedom House's rankings. @Email:jreinl@thenational.ae