© UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré - Delegates leave as Russia's Sergey Lavrov (screen) addresses HRC49 (February 2022).

Burundi, China, Russian Federation
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Human Rights Council elections: States must deny Russia, Burundi, China a seat

In October, States at the UN General Assembly are due to vote to elect 15 incoming members (of the total 47 seats) to the UN Human Rights Council, and 17 countries, including Russia, China and Burundi, are running for election.

‘In view of their records, their past actions as Council members, and the membership criteria for the Council, Russia, China and Burundi are manifestly unsuitable to sit at the UN’s principal human rights body,’ said ISHR Programme Manager Salma El Hosseiny. ‘These three candidates simply do not meet even the most basic criteria for membership of the Council. Their election would weaken the body and the processes and standards it underwrites,’ El Hosseiny added.

‘States must vote to secure a strong Council that can tackle major human rights challenges, support civil society and defenders active on the front lines, and ensure the continued defence of human rights for all,’  said Tess McEvoy, Co-Director of ISHR’s New York Office. ‘They must start by refraining from voting for Russia, Burundi and China and supporting candidates whose records align with the responsibilities of a Council member and who uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and fully cooperate with the UN,’ McEvoy stressed.

Russia’s candidacy is a cynical attempt to return to the Council following its suspension by the General Assembly in April 2022, in reaction to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In March 2022, the Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine determined that Russia was responsible for a ‘wide range of violations‘ of international human rights and humanitarian law. Russian authorities have also clamped down on civil society and independent media at home: they have passed new laws or strengthened the existing legislation restricting activities of NGOs and activists, criminalising accurate reporting or criticism of the war, as well as any kind of cooperation with international bodies like the UN or the International Criminal Court (ICC) – which itself issued an arrest warrant for President Putin in March 2023.

In Burundi, another Commission of Inquiry has reported potential crimes against humanity in the context of a national election in 2015, also leading to an ICC investigation. Authorities have shown a consistent unwillingness to cooperate with the Council as well as other UN human rights processes: for years, authorities have ignored requests for visits by UN Special Procedures mandate holders – including the Special Rapporteur on Burundi -, while, more recently, in July 2023, the Burundian delegation simply walked out of their country’s review by the UN Human Rights Committee – in objection to the presence of civil society representatives in attendance, no less.

China seeks re-election and faces no opposition despite a damning 2022 OHCHR report, which found that its detention of Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims may constitute crimes against humanity. Chinese authorities have also been repeatedly listed among the top perpetrators of reprisals against activists seeking to engage with international bodies in successive reports by the UN Secretary-General, which have at least 30 such cases since 2010 – including the case of Cao Shunli, a defender who was detained in September 2013 on her way to the UN in Geneva and who died in custody six months later. ISHR has extensively documented China’s unwillingness to meaningfully cooperate with UN mechanisms or to even recognise its human rights challenges.

This year, three of the five regional slates are competitive and have more candidates than there are seats available, namely: Africa; Asia; and Central and Eastern Europe. This means that States can vote to prevent Russia and Burundi from joining the Human Rights Council. They can cast a ballot for one of the other candidates in their respective regions. The remaining two slates, one of which includes China, have only as many candidates as there are seats to fill. Despite this, voting States can still choose not to vote for a candidate in a closed slate which will provide an indication of their lack of support as a Human Rights Council member. 

‘China may look poised to retain its seat, but States can send a strong message and question its legitimacy to sit at the Council if they vote in line with the membership criteria and do not vote for China,’ Salma El Hosseiny explained. ‘Beyond this, States have a meaningful and consequential choice to make in the three competitive slates where not all candidates will be elected,’ she stressed.

‘We also encourage governments with a strong commitment for the protection of human rights to consider running in future elections,’ said Tess McEvoy. This will ensure elections are genuinely competitive and that they yield the best possible outcomes for the Council, for global human rights standards, for human rights defenders and for people everywhere who rely on the Council to address their human rights violations,’ McEvoy concluded.

At the time of writing, these are the 17 candidates seeking election:

  • African States: Côte d’Ivoire, Burundi, Malawi, Ghana (4 candidates, 4 seats)
  • Asia and the Pacific States: Kuwait, China, Indonesia, Japan (4 candidates for 4 seats)
  • Latin America and Caribbean States: Brazil, Peru, Dominican Republic, Cuba (4 candidates, 3 seats)
  • Western Europe and other States: The Netherlands and France (2 candidates, 2 seats)
  • Central and Eastern Europe States: Albania, Bulgaria and Russia (3 candidates, 2 seats)

ISHR has published a series of scorecards for each State seeking election as well as regional cards comparing candidate States of every region. These focus on criteria such as their level of cooperation with human rights bodies, their support for civil society, their engagement with UN Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures, among others.

On 6 September 2023, ISHR and Amnesty International are organising an online event during which civil society can directly and constructively engage with candidate States by asking them questions. Candidates are also expected to elaborate on their commitments as candidates to a seat at the Council. Registration is open here. Visit our website for more information on the Human Rights Council elections.

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