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Libya to join U.N. Human Rights Council

Libya will be elected Thursday to the U.N. Human Right Council, marking another step in the former American enemy’s now well-advanced political rehabilitation on the world stage. Ever since the Libyan government in 2003 made peace with Washington and abandoned its nascent nuclear weapons program, Tripoli has ascended virtually every important diplomatic body at the ...

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Libya will be elected Thursday to the U.N. Human Right Council, marking another step in the former American enemy’s now well-advanced political rehabilitation on the world stage.

Ever since the Libyan government in 2003 made peace with Washington and abandoned its nascent nuclear weapons program, Tripoli has ascended virtually every important diplomatic body at the United Nations — including the African Union chairmanship, the U.N. Security Council, and the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly.

Tripoli’s growing diplomatic respectability has gnawed at relatives of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which in 1988 was bombed by a Libyan agent as it flew over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground. But Republican and Democratic governments have learned to work with Tripoli, and the Obama administration did not mount a campaign to block its election to the rights council, as it did for Iran.

Senior U.S. officials maintain that they can make progress on promoting human rights even when not working with like-minded countries.

"We’re working with longstanding and new partners, including partnering with Egypt on freedom of expression and working with some traditional opponents of country resolutions in the African Group to pass a resolution on Guinea in March," said Suzanne Nossel, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations.

The council will formally elect 14 new members tomorrow, including Angola, Libya, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritania, Moldova, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Qatar, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Uganda. All the candidates’ names have been put forward as part of a slate of candidates previously agreed upon by the U.N.’s key regional groups.

Human rights groups criticized the election of Angola, Libya, and Malaysia, all of which have poor human rights records. They said their success highlighted the need for an end to the U.N. voting practices of selecting the candidates on the basis of a pre-agreed slate. And they criticized the United States and other Western governments that seek to promote human rights for failing to compete openly for their seats on the council. 

"Libya’s human right situation is only part of the problem," said Peggy Hicks, an expert on the council at Human Rights Watch. "Competitive elections have successfully pushed Iran out and led to the defeat of Sri Lanka, Belarus and Azerbaijan in the past. The quality of the council’s membership is only going to improve if states that support human rights push for competition in all regions and are willing to compete themselves."

Human Rights Watch has long criticized Libya’s human rights record, but Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s North Africa and Middle East director, in February described her last visit to Tripoli as a "breakthrough" and cited an overall improvement in the climate for human rights in the country.

Libya since 1969 has been ruled by the mercurial Muammar al-Qaddafi, whose record on human rights remains "poor," according to the U.S. State Department. Speaking last September at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, Qaddafi delivered an epic, 100-minute rant, in which he called the Security Council the "Terror Council" and compared the General Assembly to London’s Hyde Park, where “you just make a speech and then you disappear.”

Update, May 18, 2010: The sixth paragraph was corrected to 14, not 12, new members, and Guatemala and Ecuador were added to the list. Mauritius was corrected to Mauritania.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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