Global Geopolitics & Political Economy / IPS
By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, May 2, 2011 (IPS) – When the General Assembly meets on May 20 to elect 15 new members for the Human Rights Council (HRC), the four candidates from the Asian Group – India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Syria – were until now considered certain winners for one primary reason: they remain uncontested on a "clean slate" for four vacant uncompetitive Asian regional seats.
But the mass uprisings in Syria over the last seven weeks – and the killings of over 500 unarmed civilians by a regime described as "repressive" – have cast strong doubts on the legitimacy of Syria’s candidacy for a seat in the U.N.’s premier human rights body.
India, Indonesia and the Philippines, however, are predicted to clinch their seats effortlessly, come election time.
According to diplomatic sources here, there has been increased pressure on Syria, mostly from Arab countries, urging it to withdraw its candidacy. But so far the Syrians remain adamant.
If eventually Syria pulls out on its own volition, the Asian Group is likely to nominate Kuwait in place of Syria.
But the Group is not likely to withdraw its original endorsement, if Syria decides to hold on to its candidature.
Lawrence C. Moss, special counsel at Human Rights Watch, told IPS, "I don’t believe the Asian Group ever before withdrew an endorsement of an HRC candidate or slate."
Still, he said, the Asian Group should withdraw its endorsement of Syria, and declare that additional Asian candidates are welcome to campaign for election to the HRC.
Asia does not always have closed, officially endorsed slates – there were open, competitive slates in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
He said 2006 saw a spirited contest with many states running in the first HRC election.
The 2008 open slate allowed human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to campaign successfully against the re-election of Sri Lanka to the Council.
The 2010 open slate made it possible to campaign successfully against Iran, driving that country from the race even prior to the vote, he added.
Whether or not Syria withdraws, one or more Asian states can enter the election at any time before the May 20 vote.
"The Asian Group can proceed to make a new endorsement, or not. Group endorsement is not required for election, and should not be," Moss pointed out.
"The effect of the endorsement of the closed slate, including Syria, remaining in effect, despite the appalling human rights situation in Syria, has been to discourage other Asian states from coming forward and competing for the seat, because they fear being ostracised in the Asian Group for breaking ‘Asian solidarity’," Moss pointed out.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the violence against peaceful demonstrators and called for an independent, transparent and effective investigation into the killings in Syria.
So has Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who has urged the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop killing his own people.
"Instead, the government’s response has been erratic, with paper reforms followed by violent crackdowns on protestors," she said last week.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one diplomatic source told IPS that Kuwait will not challenge Syria and has no plans to raise the matter directly with Syria either.
"But I gather they are ready to step forward, if Syria withdraws. I suspect these efforts (by the Arabs) will probably pay off especially as the situation in Syria is becoming increasingly more difficult," he pointed out.
But also bear in mind, he said, that the resolution adopted at Friday’s special Human Rights Council session in Geneva dropped references to Syria’s HRC candidature – which the Europeans initially wanted – because of objections from China, Russia and some of the African countries.
The Europeans in their statements urged Syria to withdraw but it was not part of the final adopted text.
"I am not sure whether this will embolden Syria to stay in the race or give it a face-saving way [out] – they will not be seen to be succumbing to pressure if they withdraw," he added.
At a special session Friday, the Human Rights Council adopted a watered-down resolution calling on the government of Syria to put an end to all human rights violations, protect its population, fully respect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, allow access to the internet and telecommunications networks, and lift censorship on reporting.
The resolution, sponsored mostly by Western nations, was adopted with 26 votes in favour, nine votes against and seven abstentions,
The resolution also urged Syria to release all prisoners of conscience and arbitrarily-detained persons, refrain from reprisals against people who participated in peaceful demonstrations, and launch a credible and impartial investigation into human rights violations and prosecute those responsible for attacks on peaceful protesters.
The demand in the original resolution for an international commission of inquiry was replaced with a request for a mission from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights laws.
Besides Asia, the only other clean slates at the upcoming elections are the four candidates for four African seats: Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso and the Republic of Congo, and two candidates, Austria and Italy, for the two Western European seats.
They are all expected to be elected because of the absence of any competing candidates from their respective regions.
The other two regional groups are in a tight contest because they are fielding more candidates than the number of available seats.
The three candidates for the two Eastern European seats are the Czech Republic, Georgia and Romania.
The four candidates for the three Latin American and Caribbean seats are Chile, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Peru.
Moss of Human Rights Watch told IPS that closed, officially endorsed regional slates are antithetical to the founding resolution of the HRC, which established a norm that states should compete for election to the HRC in the General Assembly based on the contribution they would make to promoting and protecting human rights.
All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service, 2011.
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