Dec. 11, 2012
By Patrick Goodenough
The U.N.’s top human rights body marked Human Rights Day on Monday by electing three countries with poor human rights records as vice presidents for the coming year – including one of the last remaining countries where slavery exists.
At a meeting in Geneva, members of the U.N. Human Rights Council elected Mauritania, the Maldives and Ecuador as three of its four vice presidents for 2013. Switzerland got the fourth vice-presidential slot, while Poland was elected president.
According to U.N. Watch, a non-governmental organization that monitors the HRC, none of the democracies on the HRC had “said a word about the election of Mauritania or Ecuador.”
The Obama administration last month won a new three-year term on the 47-member council, a centerpiece of its policy of deepening multilateralism through U.N. institutions.
Starting in 2013, the U.S. will be joined on the HRC by 22 other countries rated as “free” by the Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, 10 countries that it says are “not free,” and 14 “partly free” countries.
In Freedom House rankings, which are based on scores for political rights and civil liberties, Mauritania is “not free” while the Maldives and Ecuador are “partly free.”
A release from the U.N.’s Geneva headquarters quoted the incoming HRC president, Polish Ambassador Remigiusz Henczel, as saying that “he deeply believed in a council that promoted and protected human rights effectively and enabled cooperation among states, cultures and religions in a fair and equal manner.”
“He sincerely hoped that together they would be able to make 2013 another successful year of the council’s work, narrowing the gap between the human rights promise and the harsh reality still faced by many people all over the world.”
Ruled by a former military coup leader, Mauritania is a North African Islamic state where conversion to another faith is punishable by death. The country’s criminal code provides for a three-day period of reflection and repentance for any Muslim found guilty of apostasy. “If he does not repent within this time limit,” it states, “he is to be condemned to death as an apostate and his property will be confiscated by the Treasury.”
Homosexual acts also carry the death penalty in Mauritania.
Slavery of black Africans has been rooted in Mauritanian society for centuries According to activists, up to 18 percent of the population may still be in slavery today.
Female genital mutilation is formally illegal but “widely practiced,” according to Freedom House. Mauritania was listed in 122nd place (out of 135) in a recent World Economic Forum report on the gap between women and men in economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival.
Another of next year’s HRC vice-presidents, the Maldives, is also an Islamic state where all citizens are required to be Sunni Muslims, and non-Muslim foreign workers may only practice their faith in private. Speech deemed “contrary to the tenets of Islam” is restricted.
Under the Indian Ocean island nation’s law, women may be flogged for extramarital sex and homosexual activity is a crime, punishable with banishment and flogging.
Ecuador is an electoral democracy but a country which, Freedom House reports, President Rafael Correa has turned into “one of the more restrictive countries for freedom of expression in Latin America and taken steps to assault freedom of association.”
In its latest annual evaluation Freedom House reported a worsening trend in Ecuador, citing “the government’s intensified campaign against opposition
leaders and intimidation of journalists, its excessive use of public resources to influence a national referendum, and the unconstitutional restructuring of the judiciary.”
Reporters Without Borders ranked Ecuador in 104th place (out of 179) in its Press Freedom Index for 2011/2012. Mauritania was in 67th place, and the Maldives in 73rd.
Mauritania, Maldives and Ecuador have been HRC members since 2010. When the council in 2011 voted to establish the post of U.N. “special rapporteur for human rights in Iran,” Mauritania and Ecuador both voted “no.” The Maldives voted in favor.
Monday’s election results drew criticism from U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization.
“It is obscene for the U.N. to use the occasion of Human Rights Day, when we commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to elect the world’s worst enabler of slavery to this prestigious post,” said the group’s executive director, Hillel Neuer.
The HRC was established in 2006 to replace the 60-year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which had drawn frequent criticism over the presence and conduct of rights-violating nations.
The Bush administration voted against the U.N. resolution that created the new body, arguing that it did not go far enough to prevent recurrence of the problems that plagued the commission.
In 2009 the Obama administration reversed in predecessor’s decision to shun the council and ran for a seat. Citing what it calls significant improvements as a result of U.S. leadership, it stood again last month for a second term.