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Op-Ed: A Table for Tyrants

May 13, 2009

By Vaclav Havel
The New York Times
May 10, 2009

IMAGINE an election where the results are largely
preordained and a number of candidates are widely
recognized as unqualified. Any supposedly
democratic ballot conducted in this way would be
considered a farce. Yet tomorrow the United
Nations General Assembly will engage in just such
an “election” when it votes to fill the vacancies
on the 47-member Human Rights Council.

Only 20 countries are running for 18 open seats.
The seats are divided among the world’s five
geographic regions and three of the five regions
have presented the same number of candidates as
there are seats, thus ensuring there is no
opportunity to choose the best proponents of
human rights each region has to offer.

Governments seem to have forgotten the commitment
made only three short years ago to create an
organization able to protect victims and confront
human rights abuses wherever they occur.

An essential precondition was better membership.
The council’s precursor, the United Nations
Commission on Human Rights, was folded in 2006
mainly because it had, for too long, allowed
gross violators of human rights like Sudan and
Zimbabwe to block action on their own abuses.

The council was supposed to be different. For the
first time, countries agreed to take human rights
records into account when voting for the
council’s members, and those member-states that
failed to, in the words of the founding
resolution, “uphold the highest standards in the
promotion and protection of human rights” would
find themselves up for review and their seats
endangered. For victims of human rights abuses
and advocates for human rights worldwide, the
reforms offered the hope of a credible and effective body.

Now, it seems, principle has given way to
expediency. Governments have resumed trading
votes for membership in various other United
Nations bodies, putting political considerations
ahead of human rights. The absence of competition
suggests that states that care about human rights
simply don’t care enough. Latin America, a region
of flourishing democracies, has allowed Cuba to
bid to renew its membership. Asian countries have
unconditionally endorsed the five candidates
running for their region’s five seats — among them, China and Saudi Arabia.

In past years, Western countries encouraged
rights-respecting states from other regions to
compete for election. This year, they have ceded
the high ground by presenting a non-competitive
slate for the council elections. New Zealand
withdrew when the United States declared its
candidacy, leaving just three countries —
Belgium, Norway and the United States — running for three seats.

Even where competition is guaranteed, it is
minimal. In the Eastern Europe region -- which
under the United Nations’ rules includes all
countries behind the former Iron Curtain,
including my own, the Czech Republic — the
countries running for re-election are Azerbaijan
and Russia, whose human rights records oscillate
from questionable to despicable. Only Hungary has
stepped forward to compete for the region’s two
seats. The reluctance of Eastern European states
to reclaim leadership from human rights abusers does not inspire confidence.

Like the citizens of Azerbaijan, China, Cuba,
Russia and Saudi Arabia, I know what it is like
to live in a country where the state controls
public discourse, suppresses opposition and
severely curtails freedom of expression. It is
thus doubly dismaying for me to see the
willingness of democracies in Latin America and
Asia to sit by and watch the council further lose its credibility and respect.

Activists and journalists in Azerbaijan and Cuba
have already appealed to the international
community not to elect their nations to the Human
Rights Council. States committed to human rights
and the integrity of the council cannot remain
indifferent. Countries must express solidarity
with the victims of human rights abuses and
reclaim the council by simply refusing to vote
for human rights abusers in this shamefully uncontested election.

Vaclav Havel was the president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.
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