The United Nations Human Rights Council opened its 30th session this week, beginning with an opening statement from the High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein outlining the importance of the Council’s work in protecting and promoting human rights. Recognizing the growing focus, especially in the Global South, on national sovereignty, he emphasized the connections between human rights and national sovereignty saying, “upholding human rights is intrinsic to the obligations of sovereignty. . . The voice of human rights is raised in support of your governance —to assist in building societies that are resilient, peaceful and prosperous.”
Zeid then went on to specifically highlight hotspots around the world, including the recent deportations of Colombians from the Venezuelan border, the expulsion of people of Haitian descent from the Dominican Republic, anti-corruption protests in Honduras, the investigation into the missing students in Mexico, and the continued violence in Brazil regarding land rights for indigenous peoples. Hussein also reprimanded the government of Ecuador for its violent crackdown against protestors, reminding the government of its citizens’ right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Among the many thematic and regional issues that will be discussed at the upcoming session, we can expect, at best, 30 resolutions decided upon by the 47 members of the council. Some of those resolutions will be decided by consensus and others by contentious vote. While there are a number of important thematic topics on the docket, the country-specific votes promise to be some of the most important. The question: how will the eight Latin American and Caribbean members of the Council vote? The Latin America/Caribbean contingent is a mixed lot and comprises: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Paraguay, and Venezuela.
Here is an analysis of how they will likely vote, based on past performance.
Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka has repeatedly been a major topic of debate at the Council. A previous Council commissioned a report (the advance draft of which was released this week) by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate the final months of the war in Sri Lanka, an incredibly violent time in which thousands of civilians died and both sides are accused of committing atrocities against civilians. The report lays out the evidence of both war crimes and crimes against humanity, and presents the case for an international or hybrid tribunal to fully address accountability for the crimes, since previous domestic tribunals were not objective or sufficient. Russia and China see an international investigation as unnecessary interference in an internal affair.
Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have all voted in the past to support the human rights investigation and need for accountability in Sri Lanka. Cuba and Venezuela, though, have sided with Russia and China in voting against the international investigation (AKA against American/Western intrusion into internal affairs).
While there is not much chance that Cuba or Venezuela will change their voting patterns, there is the hope that Bolivia, El Salvador and Paraguay, who do not yet have a voting record on the issue of Sri Lanka, will see the importance of voting for accountability for past human rights abuses, especially as a tool to prevent future abuses. Unfortunately, we expect Bolivia to prioritize its ALBA alliance and join Cuba and Venezuela in its voting decisions.
Syria: Ever since the Syrian Arab Republic descended into civil war four years ago, the topic of human rights and the investigation of mass atrocities in the chaos has been a topic at the Human Rights Council. The Council has commissioned an investigation into abuses committed by all sides.
Obviously, like Sri Lanka, Syria is not in Latin America, nor is it a country with close ties to many countries in Latin America. However, it is one of geopolitical importance, and one where the government has prioritized its own survival over the human rights of its citizens. Here, as with Sri Lanka, the hope is that Latin American countries, as part of the global community, will act to prioritize the rights of the victimized citizens.
In past Council sessions, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, and Paraguay have all voted to support investigations, while Bolivia has sided with its ALBA allies, Cuba and Venezuela, to vote against the resolutions. While Syrian President Assad can continue to depend on the support of Russia, China and the ALBA alliance, his support within the Global South is not absolute. For example, in Resolution 29/16, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico and Paraguay all voted to condemn the extreme deterioration of human rights in Syria, including the targeting of civilians, the bombing of medical facilities, the widespread use of sexual violence and torture, the destruction of cultural heritage, and the use of starvation as a method of combat against civilians.
Ukraine: This is a fairly new issue for the Council, having come to a vote only twice previously, when Resolution 26/30 passed in the 26th session in June 2014, and a year later when Resolution 29/23 passed in in the 29th session in June 2015. In June 2014, Russia had just completed its annexation of the Crimea three months previously in March 2014, and the civil war in the east of the country was erupting. The Council passed Resolution 26/30 calling for all sides to respect human rights and international borders, and urging the separatists to renounce violence in achieving their goals. It also commissioned an investigation into the protests and violent crackdown in Maidan Square and ongoing violence in the separatist eastern areas.
However, the vote on Resolution 26/30 set a troubling precedent. Of the Latin American country members, only Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico voted yes to the resolution—condemning Russia’s actions and calling for an investigation. Of those governments, only Mexico remains a member of the Council. Brazil, Argentina and Peru all abstained from voting and Cuba and Venezuela predictably voted no along with Russia and China. One year later, when Ukraine sponsored a resolution (29/23) requesting cooperation and assistance in the field of human rights, only Mexico voted to support Ukraine. Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador and Paraguay all abstained, and Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela all voted no.
While the region’s abstentions are not the same as a “no” votes against the resolutions, among countries of the Global South an abstention has become increasingly common in complex issues of international human rights. This has been particularly true for the BRICS nations. (For Council votes on Syria, India and South Africa have abstained from voting 82 percent and 100 percent of the time, respectively). Too often, abstention has become a way for governments to refrain from engaging on an issue and passing judgment on the internal affairs of another country, often in the name of national sovereignty.