On March 15, 2006, one hundred seventy United Nations member states agreed to establish a new Human Rights Council to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) which had fallen under the sway of human-rights abusers that became members solely to prevent the Commission from taking effective action against them. Six of the 53 UNCHR members—China, Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe—were classified as some of the world’s “worst of the worst” abusers of human rights by Freedom House in 2005. Moreover, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi‘s Libya served as UNCHR Chair in 2003. In 2005, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan suggested that the Commission should be disbanded and replaced with a smaller Council that would stand as a “society of the committed.” A year of intense negotiations resulted in the creation of the Human Rights Council, which held its inaugural election of 47 members on May 9, 2006, and its first meeting in Geneva on June 19.
Under the rules of the UNCHR, candidates for membership were nominated by regional groups and often rubber-stamped by the UN Economic and Social Council (UNESCO). By contrast, membership in the new Human Rights Council will be more difficult to secure, requiring an affirmative vote by at least 96 of the 191 members of the General Assembly. Moreover, members must pledge to uphold human rights standards, subject themselves to review of their human rights records during their term on the council, and cooperate fully with UN human rights investigators. They can also be suspended for gross violations; a two-thirds vote is required to remove a member from the Council.
The move to establish the new Council was adopted by a vote of 170 to 4. Only the United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands dissented, arguing that the new rules did not go far enough in assuring that rights abusers would be barred from Council membership. The U.S. did, however, pledge to cooperate with efforts to strengthen the Council.
According to Mark Lagon, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, the United States was unwilling “to settle for something that is just a change in name and schedule,” but rather sought “to make sure the procedures for electing members and for disqualifying the most bloodthirsty regimes in the world are established so that we turn a page in the history of the Commission on Human Rights — which has done much good but which has lost credibility by becoming a body of not just firefighters but arsonists.”
“The Bush administration’s disturbing human rights record would have complicated its [America’s] candidacy this year,” said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. “We hope that the U.S. will make a serious effort to address its own rights abuse so that it can be in a stronger position to present itself for election to the [C]ouncil next year.”
The 47 seats on the new Council are apportioned as follows: 13 seats to Africa; 13 seats to Asia and the Middle East; 8 seats to Latin America; 6 seats to Eastern Europe; and 7 seats to the combined grouping of West European countries and what the UN refers to as the “Others Group.” The “Others Group” includes the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Thus the countries included in the categories of Africa, Asia and the Middle East together account for 55 percent of the Council seats while only 21 percent of all such countries were rated “free” in 2005, according to Freedom House.
Among the first nations to announce their candidacy for Council seats were China, Iran, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia.
President Obama announced, in 2009, that the U.S. would join the Council for the first time. In November 2010, the Council made headlines when it harshly berated America for its alleged discrimination against Muslims, its barbaric police practices, its use of torture against enemies abroad, and its religious intolerance.
In the summer of 2014, while Israel was engaged in a large-scale military operation designed to degrade and destroy the terrorism infrastructure of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the UNHRC condemned, “in the strongest terms” possible, “the failure of Israel, the occupying power, to end its prolonged occupation of occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem,” and “the widespread, systematic, and gross violation of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations carried out in the occupied Palestinian Territory since 13 June 2014 that may amount to international crimes, directly resulting in the killing of more than 650 Palestinians, most of them civilians.” Throughout the resolution Hamas’ name was not mentioned, nor was it pointed out that Hamas provoked the conflict by deliberately firing rockets at Israel.
Even before the Israeli–Hamas ceasefire agreement went into effect, the UNHRC in Geneva rushed to set up a court headed by the blatantly anti-Israel William Schabas, a Canadian professor of international law. The same Schabas had said in 2013 that he “would like to see [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu within the dock of the International Criminal Court.” Confronted by a reporter on his visceral hatred of Netanyahu, Schabas explained that he was echoing the Goldstone Report that related to Operation Cast Lead of 2008-2009. But in fact, it was Ehud Olmert and not Netanyahu who served as Prime Minister at that time. When asked if he considered Hamas a terrorist organization and whether Hamas too, should be investigated, Schabas declined to respond.