By Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch
This paper briefly examines the records of India, Brazil and South Africa – IBSA — on the UN Human Rights Council’s engagement with country-specific situations. Almost nine years after its creation, the Human Rights Council faces a world in turmoil amid growing threats to human rights. Increasing tensions around the continued crises in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Palestine, among others, have put into question the capacity of the Council and each of its members to implement its mandate to “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations,” and to “respond promptly to human rights emergencies.”
The lack of diverse principled leadership at the Council to address in-country violations further exposes the body to accusations of double-standards and selectivity. India, Brazil and South Africa have long stated that the Council would benefit from their coordinated contributions and that they would reinforce positions of mutual interest. Has that proven to be the case? More importantly, what leadership has IBSA shown at the Council to respond to the needs of victims and to ensure greater accountability for human rights abusers? What role has IBSA played in promoting civil society participation in Council proceedings?
This paper is based on an analysis of HRC members’ voting records on country resolutions and their engagement on country-specific debates at the Council carried out by Human Rights Watch between July 2010 and March 2015.
Palestine resolutions: IBSA’s unique point of convergence
In contrast to their position on other country situations, India, Brazil and South Africa voted consistently in favor of all resolutions addressing the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT). More than an element of convergence between the three nations, their support for the various resolutions denouncing violations committed by Israel against Palestinians reflected the views of the majority of their respective regional groups. Many states that routinely support resolutions against Israel, however, have obstructed resolutions addressing other situations of violations – raising questions about selectivity in the Council’s approach to country resolutions.
IBSA formally contributed with one voice to all plenary debates of the Human Rights Council on the situation in the OPT between 2011 and June 2014 with its three members joining a collective statements. Human Rights Watch found only two statements on other country situations delivered by IBSA in the same period. Nevertheless, the fact that IBSA did not deliver a joint statement on Palestine at the last two regular Council sessions, in September 2014 and March 2015, raises the question of whether this practice will continue.
Different votes, different views
Analysis of IBSA states’ behavior and voting patterns on resolutions addressing other situations of human rights violations illustrates a clear diversity of approach.
When it re-joined the Human Rights Council in 2014, South Africa pledged that “as Members of the Council, we should at all times be guided by a common desire and collective vision … to ensure that the Council guarantees (i) maximum protection, (ii) adequate remedies to all victims of human rights abuses, and (iii) that there is no impunity for human rights violations.” Despite this stated vision and clear commitment, however, South Africa has abstained on each and every country resolution put to a vote at the Council, including those on Syria, Sri Lanka, North Korea, Belarus and Iran. Within the Human Rights Council membership in 2014, only Namibia and Ethiopia followed a similar consistent pattern of abstentions on all country resolutions other than those on the OPT.
In one significant instance, South Africa dissociated itself from consensus on the resolution adopted during the September 2014 special session on Iraq, rightfully pointing to the imbalanced substance of the text and the lack of transparent negotiations. However, when an even more imbalanced and selective follow-up resolution on Iraq was presented for adoption in March 2015, South Africa remained silent.
South Africa’s reluctance to engage with country resolutions appears to have now become entrenched. South Africa contends that it does not wish to be involved in the Council’s work on country situations because these are politicized and divisive. In contrast with steps it takes on the African continent, it appears not to see relevance in using the Human Rights Council to address critical human rights situations. Nor does South Africa accept any leadership role in tackling crises in the region in which it is directly involved, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo or in South Sudan. This stance could be justified if South Africa worked actively to address situations of serious violations in other ways that it deemed more effective. Instead, however, South Africa has simply not engaged in this important part of the HRC’s mandate, raising serious questions about its fulfillment of its responsibilities as a council member. In addition, South Africa’s support for all resolutions on Palestine, reflects its own double standards, given its systematic abstentions on all other situations.
India returned to the Council in July 2011 after a one-year membership gap during which the Arab Spring shook the HRC’s political landscape. India’s voting record on country resolutions highlights its deep reluctance to engage with the Council’s mandate to address human rights crises. India abstains on the large majority of country resolutions put to a vote at the Council, with only a few exceptions.
On the “yes” side, India voted in favor of the 2012 and 2013 resolutions on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. This was probably less because of a shift in its approach to country resolutions, and more a result of significant domestic pressure by political parties in India’s Tamil Nadu state. In 2014, however, India abstained on a resolution to set up a UN inquiry into allegations of wartime violations, arguing that while Sri Lanka had failed to properly investigate allegations of grave human rights violations, establishing an international inquiry would be an impractical intrusion into Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty. Of even greater concern was India’s support for a no-action motion proposed by Pakistan to adjourn debate on the proposed resolution.
The only other resolution that garnered India’s support was the June 2012 HRC special session text on the massacre in the Syrian town of El-Houleh. With the exception of that vote, however, India followed its usual pattern and abstained on all 14 other resolutions adopted on Syria – including those establishing or renewing the mandate of the international commission of inquiry on Syria.
After abstaining for two years on the Iran resolution, India changed its vote to no in 2014. India has also voted no on all resolutions adopted on Belarus. The shift in India’s votes on Iran and Sri Lanka in 2014 illustrated a further deterioration of its support for the Council’s action on country-specific violations, placing it among the least supportive states of the Council’s mandate to address country situations. To justify its approach, India emphasized that it supports greater cooperation and dialogue and rejects “finger-pointing” and putting a spotlight on country situations. But it fell short of clarifying how its approach to human rights foreign policy would contribute to human rights protection when cooperation and dialogue fail. Within IBSA, India appears as the most consistent supporter that the notion of sovereignty is a sufficient reason to remain silent on human rights violations in other countries.
Brazil’s voting record at the Human Rights Council is marked by a generally principled approached in support of the Council’s actions on human rights crises, as well as some concerning inconsistencies.
Within IBSA, Brazil is the only country that supports both resolutions denouncing rights violations committed by Israel and resolutions addressing grave human rights situations in other countries. For that reason, in 2013 and 2014 Brazil was among states with the strongest voting records on situations of violations across the globe. Brazil further supported a key joint statement presented by Switzerland in September 2013 denouncing violations committed in Bahrain and calling for its government to genuinely cooperate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
However, Brazil’s voting record is also marked by worrying performances on key debates at the council. Six years ago, in March 2009, Brazil abstained on the resolution renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on North Korea. Brazil argued that the North Korean government should be given a chance to cooperate with human rights mechanisms while there was no sign of genuine willingness or cooperation from one of the closest countries in the world. Just a few months later, Brazil joined China, Cuba and Egypt as co-sponsors of an infamous resolution that ignored massive international crimes committed at the end of the war in Sri Lanka, and praised the government’s performance. In subsequent years, Brazil’s approach to country situations changed significantly, and by 2014, Brazil maintained a positive voting record on country situations, supporting resolutions on North Korea, Sri Lanka, Belarus, Iran and Syria.
However, at the March 2015 session, Brazil shifted its vote from supporting to abstaining on two important resolutions: those renewing the mandates of the Special Rapporteur on Iran and the Commission of Inquiry on Syria – the latter being chaired by eminent Brazilian human rights expert Sergio Paulo Pinheiro. Brazil explained that its decisions were justified by a lack of balance in the approach adopted in the Syria resolution and by the need to acknowledge Iran’s supposed renewed engagement with the human rights system. However, in its explanation of vote, Brazil also recognized the important role played by the Special Rapporteur and the continued patterns of grave violations in Iran, including the application of the death penalty. Coming from a global player like Brazil, these mixed messages risk undermining the important mechanisms established by the two resolutions.
Brazil’s approach to the Human Rights Council is guided by its desire to seek the engagement of the countries concerned in the Council’s resolutions. At the same time, Brazil does recognize that cooperation alone cannot resolve all problems, and that monitoring mechanisms can be necessary in cases of grave human rights violations. Brazil’s occasional reluctance to recognize that such a failure of cooperation required HRC action in the cases of North Korea, Sri Lanka, and Iran mars its otherwise strong voting record.
India, Brazil and South Africa are three global leaders. They are also democratic countries from which a commitment to human rights, both domestically and internationally, should be expected. They do not vote in the same way on country resolutions at the Council. But as a group they should be more supportive of human rights protection.
Instead, their country-specific action at the HRC has converged around the following patterns: consistent support of the Council’s agenda on Israel and Palestine; a preference for responses that promote technical assistance and cooperation, although they do not translate in the same way that approach into action; and a reluctance to demonstrate leadership when addressing situations of human rights violations. IBSA members could exercise undeniable influence on the global scene. Close observers highlighted that India’s position on Sri Lanka probably influenced Brazil’s vote in 2012. They often make their voices heard during debate preceding the adoption of key resolutions. But they have failed to propose – both collectively and individually –concrete options or solutions to address the needs of victims when cooperation fails.
South Africa and India should urgently review their approach in which they did not contribute to the Council’s mandate to address situations of violations and respond to emergencies. They should finally acknowledge that country resolutions can play a role in ending abuses and ensuring accountability. Brazil should further consolidate its approach to avoid any scenario in which rights-abusive governments can use vague pledges of cooperation to deflect international criticism without committing to genuine steps to address substantive concerns shared by Brazil. All three states should translate their well-founded frustration towards the Council’s continued selectivity and double-standards into action, by developing new strategies to ensure all situations meriting the Council’s attention are addressed, rather than invoking selectivity as an excuse for inaction.
At a moment when the Human Rights Council’s fragility is exposed by the failure of traditional leaders of country-specific actions to ensure that violations are duly addressed, for example in Iraq or in Egypt, the response of IBSA states could have a major influence on multilateral human rights politics. Their future stance will shape a Human Rights Council that could be less selective and more responsive to the needs of victims, or on the contrary that could bring Council members and the Council itself into disrepute by failing to stand up to violators or combat impunity.