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UN criticized over latest picks for rights council

The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva has long faced criticism over its effectiveness
Fabrice COFFRINI (AFP/File)
The United States pulled out of the council in June, calling the organization a "hypocritical" body

Bahrain, Cameroon and the Philippines were among a number of nations controversially elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday, sparking sharp criticism from rights groups.

Around a third of the seats on the 47-member council, based in Geneva, were up for grabs for slots lasting from 2019-2022. A 97-vote majority from the 193 nations that make up the UN's General Assembly is needed for the green light.

For the first time since the council was created in 2006, each voting region agreed in advance on 18 candidates to be in the running for 18 seats -- removing any competition.

New members Bahrain, Cameroon, the Philippines, Somalia, Bangladesh and Eritrea were elected with between 160 and 178 votes -- and immediately drew criticism from campaigners in Europe and North America dismissing them as "unqualified" due to their human rights records.

"By putting forward serious rights violators and presenting only as many candidates as seats available, the regional groups risk undermining the council's credibility and effectiveness," said New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Louis Charbonneau, the group's UN director, called the vote "ridiculous" and said on Twitter it "makes mockery of (the) word 'election.'"

At the start of the voting session, the General Assembly's president, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, noted that every member state is allowed to apply for a seat.

Her spokesman later declined to directly address the criticism, but instead noted: "It's clear that the world expects that members of international bodies will abide to a certain set of standards of behavior consistent with the bodies they have been elected to."

Five of the new members were from Africa, five from Asia, two from eastern Europe, three from Latin America and the Caribbean, and three from western Europe.

The United States pulled out of the council in June, calling the organization a "hypocritical" body that "makes a mockery of human rights," in particular in regard to its stance on Israel.

Olivier Douliery (AFP)

Nikki Haley, who this week announced her resignation as US ambassador to the UN, described the council at the time as "a protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias."

Independent watchdog Human Rights Watch criticized the move, warning Washington's absence at the council would put the onus on other governments to address the world's most serious rights problems.

"The Trump administration's withdrawal is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy: defending Israeli abuses from criticism takes precedence above all else," executive director Kenneth Roth said.

US criticism stems from the fact that Israel is the only country that has a dedicated agenda item at council meetings, one defended in particular by the Arab bloc of countries.

Known as "Item 7", this item means that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians comes under scrutiny at each of three annual sessions.

The United States refused to join the body when it was created in 2006, when George W. Bush was in the White House and his ambassador to the UN was John Bolton -- now Trump's UN-skeptic national security adviser.

After Barack Obama came to power, Washington joined the council in 2009.

But when Trump took office, he adopted a hostile approach to world governance, leading Washington to quit the UN cultural agency UNESCO, cut UN funding and planning to leave the Paris climate agreement.

The announcement came after the top UN human rights official criticized Washington for separating migrant children from their parents who are seeking asylum after crossing into the country from Mexico.

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