Turtle Bay

Will Sudan really get elected to the Human Rights Council?

It’s a story all too familiar. A government responsible for mass murder, crushing democratic dissent, or engaging in nuclear, chemical, or biological shenanigans gets elected to the U.N. institution responsible for policing just that — whether upholding human rights, democracy, or disarmament. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir stands charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating ...

It’s a story all too familiar.

A government responsible for mass murder, crushing democratic dissent, or engaging in nuclear, chemical, or biological shenanigans gets elected to the U.N. institution responsible for policing just that — whether upholding human rights, democracy, or disarmament.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir stands charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating a campaign of genocide in Darfur. So what better place to defend oneself than with a seat on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council?

A couple of months back, Sudan was quietly included on a slate of five African countries — the others are Ethiopia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone — due to run unchallenged for seats on the 47-member council this November.

The selection of Sudan as a candidate has provided U.N. critics with another example of the U.N.’s abject moral state. In Washington, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs committee issued a statement Monday, saying Sudan’s candidacy shows the U.N. is broken. "As Sudan appears poised to win a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, the UN has hit a new low," she said. "The UN has surrendered to despots and rogue regimes as it allows the likes of Iran’s Ahmadinejad, Venezuela’s Chavez, and now Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir to corrupt the system and use it to further their own oppressive and despotic schemes."

Human Rights groups agree that Sudan’s election would be disastrous but they have focused their efforts on persuading African government to drop Sudan. Previous campaigns by Western governments and human rights advocates have succeeded in preventing Azerbaijan, Belarus, Iran, and Syria from getting seats on the council.

"Sudan is as unfit candidate as they get, with a horrendous record of mass abuses against civilians in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "Its election would be a blow to both the victims of the Sudanese regime and the credibility of the Human Rights Council."

The real culprit in this unfolding spectacle is the U.N. system of regional voting blocs, which generally pre-select a list of candidates based on which country is next in line. The practice ensures that everyone gets their chance — whether they deserve it or not — and there are no messy elections. Sudan, which has previously been blocked from serving on the U.N. Security Council, has been waiting in line a long time for a choice committee appointment. And African states appear unwilling to deny them their chance, even if it may prove embarrassing.

Asked how the Africans could put forward a country so clearly unsuited for the job, one African ambassador told Turtle Bay, "Even if we believe deep down that Sudan, whose president has been indicted, shouldn’t be elected, nobody wants to jeopardize their relations by telling Sudan you don’t qualify because you have a human rights problem. We will be sitting at the table with them in future."

The United States — which has often benefited itself from the system of regional slates — has for the moment joined an informal coalition of governments and human rights organizations that are seeking to upend Sudan’s candidacy. They have urged Kenya to break ranks with the African group and run a campaign against Sudan’s inclusion.

"Sudan, a consistent human rights violator, does not meet the Council’s own standards for membership," said Kurtis A. Cooper, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "It would be inappropriate for Sudan to have a seat on the Council while the Sudanese head of State is under International Criminal Court indictment for war crimes in Darfur and the government of Sudan continues to use violence to inflame tensions along its border with South Sudan."

Diplomats and other observers say Sudan’s mission in Geneva has signaled that it may be willing to pull out of the competition, but it is not prepared to do so publicly at this stage. In exchange, they expect that Sudan will seek assurances from other African states to oppose a U.S. and European effort to strengthen the Human Rights Council’s scrutiny of its human rights conduct.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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

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