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Can Africa help the UN Human Rights Council pass its next litmus test?

Can Africa help the UN Human Rights Council pass its next litmus test?
The United Nations’ top human rights body is facing a test. (Image: Civicus / Wikipedia)

The United Nations’ top human rights body is facing a test. Its outcome will have major implications for its credibility.

This October, the Human Rights Council (HRC) might readmit Russia, which it suspended just more than a year ago, as a member. 

At the opening of the next UN General Assembly session, all 193 UN member states, including 54 African states, will vote to choose new HRC members. For Eastern Europe, three candidates will compete for two seats: Russia will face the much smaller Albania and Bulgaria. Given its continued war of aggression against an independent nation, Ukraine, Russia’s candidacy might look like a joke, but it isn’t. 

An even more distasteful joke would be to see it elected. 

To summarise the stakes: the international community electing Russia to the council would be like a class inviting a bully to join a trip to the mountains shortly after their school adopted an anti-bullying policy. 

Russia’s candidacy: a major risk for the council’s credibility 

In its 17-year history the HRC has faced several credibility crises. States with dubious human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, China and Eritrea, were elected members – some of them a number of times. Their election made a mockery of the council’s membership criteria, including to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”. 

A successful membership bid, a year after Russia was kicked out of the council, would be an unmitigated disaster.

In 2022, the HRC voted down a draft resolution on China’s abuses against Uyghurs

The previous year, regrettably, it discontinued a probe into Yemen’s bloody war. 

These failures reflected the increasing polarisation at the UN. 

Africa UN Human Rights Council

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting on the implementation of the development programme for the cities of Anadyr, Magadan and Yakutsk in the Russian Far East via videoconference in Sochi, Krasnodar region, Russia, on 5 September 2023. (Photo:EPA-EFE / Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin)

The test the HRC is facing in 2023 is arguably its most challenging so far. A successful membership bid, a year after Russia was kicked out of the council, would be an unmitigated disaster. Human rights lovers, UN observers and diplomats alike would agree: Russia’s election would deal a blow to the council’s credibility. 

Those who are old enough to remember the council’s predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, can picture the headlines. Libya’s election as chair of the defunct commission, in 2003, was the final nail in its coffin. Three years later, its reputation destroyed, the commission was replaced with a new body. 

Since its creation, in 2006, the HRC has avoided the commission’s worst practices. It refrained, for instance, from selecting egregious abusers to oversee its proceedings. 

But in all honesty, 2006 was a different time. Then, out of a crisis, something better emerged. In 2023, geopolitical divisions make it unlikely for the HRC to give way to a more effective body. 

The worst, however, is not certain. If we shouldn’t take for granted that it won’t happen, we shouldn’t take for granted that it will either.

Reasons for optimism 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, like the US’s war in Iraq, in 2003, is one of the worst violations of the UN Charter since 1945. On the diplomatic scene, it hasn’t been rewarded; on the contrary – violating a state’s sovereignty comes with a political cost. 

Since 24 February 2022, at the UN General Assembly and at the Human Rights Council, Ukraine-focused resolutions have been adopted with overwhelming majorities. Most African states have voted in favour, and a tiny minority (Eritrea and Mali) voted against, thereby siding with Russia. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Punching below our diplomatic weight – why SA foreign policy fails on Ukraine

The African group’s voting patterns are clear: except for resolutions demanding reparations from Russia or directly addressing Russia’s domestic human rights abuses, 27 to 30 African states have sided with Ukraine. 

Ten of them even voted for Russia’s suspension from the HRC. 

Iryna (60) repairs her home which was occupied by Russian soldiers and destroyed by shelling in the village of Dovhenke, Ukraine, on 2 September 2023. Iryna fled the village when Russian forces started their offensive. When she returned her house was destroyed and she discovered her son’s body in the rubble of his neighbour’s house. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Oleg Petrasuyk)

These patterns run counter to a new form of Afropessimism that’s attributable to security crises and unconstitutional changes of power from the Sahel and the Horn to central Africa. Wars and coups are significant threats to the African Union’s “Agenda 2063” and its aspirations: an Africa at peace and defined by good governance, democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law. For most African governments, and certainly for all African citizens, this vision remains “The Africa We Want”. 

For Russia to be elected an HRC member, a significant shift in voting dynamics would be required. All of a sudden, a majority of states, including Africa, would have to side with Putin’s regime. This is unlikely. When it comes to foreign policy, most states are consistent. 

Last June, Belarus, a close Russian ally, failed to be elected a member of the UN Security Council. It won only 38 votes; its opponent, Slovenia, won 153. 

Oleksii (39) in his home which was damaged by Russian shelling and occupied by Russian soldiers in the village of Ruski Tyshky in Ukraine, 17km from the border with Russia, on 1 September 2023. The village was occupied on the first day of the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022 and retaken in late May 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Cathal McNaughton)

These are reasons for optimism. Risks, however, remain – some objective, others circumstantial. The bottom line is that Africa holds the key to next October’s vote. 

Africa can usher in the council’s demise – or protect its integrity

The first risk is the New York/Geneva gap. What’s important in Geneva, where the HRC sits, can be seen as less important in New York, where the General Assembly meets – and where human rights aren’t central to daily conversations. 

Putin’s discourse on building a ‘multipolar’ world is effective… its core narrative resonates with a number of Global South countries

For HRC elections, the story is well known: political arrangements weigh heavier than human rights criteria. States trade votes in elections to UN bodies, often in an opaque way, and HRC elections are part of this equation. In addition, the practice of “closed slates” often nullifies prospects for merit-based competition. 

HRC elections, to summarise, are guided by human rights about as much as Carl von Clausewitz was guided by naiveté when he wrote On War

Second, the two candidates competing against Russia, Albania and Bulgaria, face logistical issues. They have very few embassies in Africa and Asia, the two regions with the biggest chunks of votes at the UN General Assembly. Their outreach capacity is limited. 

Ukraine Russia

Olga (59) in her home which was damaged by Russian shelling and occupied by Russian soldiers in the village of Ruski Tyshky, Ukraine, on 1 September 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Cathal McNaughton)

Third, if most states have sided with Ukraine to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, Russia isn’t completely isolated. Seventeen African heads of state attended the July 2023 Russia-Africa Summit. This is fewer than the previous summit, but among those present were heads of state of major African powers, including Cameroon, Egypt, Senegal and South Africa. Several heads of government also attended. 

Most African states aren’t ready to sever ties with Russia, which is the successor state to the Soviet Union – a key ally in the decolonisation struggle. (To be fair, Ukraine was as much part of the USSR as Russia was.) And to some extent, Putin’s discourse on building a “multipolar” world is effective. Irrespective of the bad faith with which it’s propagated, its core narrative resonates with a number of Global South countries, who look kindly on attempts to build a more democratic international governance. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears via a video link at the Friends of BRICS Leaders dialogue in Johannesburg on 24 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

Last, contrary to the recent Security Council election, in other UN bodies, Russian-aligned candidates were successful. This was the case at the obscure, albeit strategic, ACABQ, a committee in charge of budgetary questions. In August 2022, a Russian diplomat succeeded another as a committee member. The temporarily vacant seat remained with Russia, which secured re-election against a Ukrainian candidate. No big conclusions can be drawn from this vote, but it should serve as a booster shot – a reminder that Russia’s election to the HRC isn’t an “it-cannot-possibly-happen” scenario. 

As Asian, European and Latin American states’ positions appear to be stable, it’s up to Africa to make the decision. As DefendDefenders showed in a 2022 report, the African Group often determines voting outcomes in UN bodies. The same goes for the 2023 HRC elections. 

Stability and consistency will mean victory for Albania and Bulgaria. Shifts in African states’ positions will mean that Russia could be back. 

To avoid this disaster and help the council protect its integrity and credibility, it doesn’t take much. It doesn’t even take a vote against Russia; it simply takes ticking the names of the other two candidates on the ballot, which opposed, like many African states, Russia’s egregious attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and the UN Charter. It takes being consistent and upholding the vision and aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063. DM

Hassan Shire is executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (DefendDefenders) and chairperson of the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (AfricanDefenders).


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