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Human Rights at the UN: A Yearly Struggle

December 15, 2015
Roland Elliott Brown
8 min read
Human Rights at the UN: A Yearly Struggle

Every year for the past 13 years, the Third Committee of the United Nations has voted on a resolution titled, “The Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

It is one of four “country-specific” resolutions regularly tabled at the Third Committee, which addresses social, humanitarian and human rights matters. The other three focus on Syria, Myanmar and North Korea.

This year the Iran resolution, which is sponsored by Canada and co-sponsored by 46 other states, acknowledges Iran’s pledges to improve its treatment of women and ethnic minorities, but calls on Iran to take significant action over executions, torture, trial standards, prison conditions, freedom of expression and belief, the rights of women and minorities, and the freedom of elections.

All 193 UN member states are invited to endorse or reject the resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Voting takes place in two stages. In the first round on November 19th, 76 countries voted yes, 35 voted no, and 68 abstained. Results may change slightly in the second round of voting on December 17th, since several countries have yet to vote, and will likely do so then.

While the motion will certainly pass, 2015 has so far seen the lowest number of yes votes since Iran’s violent suppression of post-election “Green Movement” protests in 2009. Some human rights advocates have worried that the diplomatic atmosphere surrounding Iran’s agreement with major powers over its nuclear program could reduce some countries’ concern over human rights in Iran.


The Yeses and the Nos

The vote is an intensely political process that reflects long-standing allegiances and economic interests, personal relationships between countries’ UN diplomats, and steep divisions over both the UN’s human rights mechanisms, and the very concept of human rights. Some states break down into groups whose views are predictable, while a few sway every year.

The most predictable bloc, which routinely supports the resolution, is known as WEOG, or the Western Europe and Others Group. This includes the European Union as well as non-EU nations in Western Europe such as Norway and Switzerland. It also includes other advanced liberal democracies such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Israel is also a member.

EU states routinely support the resolution with one voice. Mani Mostofi of Impact Iran, an initiative that encourages Iran to engage with UN human rights mechanisms, calls this Europe’s “gentlemen’s agreement.” EU members, he says, debate the text of the resolution ahead of time to come up with a common position. Many EU countries also co-sponsor the motion. Even so, exceptions exist. This year Greece voted yes on the resolution, but unexpectedly withdrew its co-sponsorship. “Over the last year, Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have been working towards a stronger relationship between the two countries,” Mostofi says. 

The EU also projects influence beyond its borders. Turkey never votes at all, because it is a candidate for EU membership.

There is also a group of around thirty states that routinely oppose the motion.

At the core of these are Russia and China, whose votes at the UN remain rooted in Cold War divisions and sensitivity about outside scrutiny of their own human rights records.

India, too, consistently votes no. “India has very standoffish views about UN human rights mechanisms, especially country-specific ones,” Mostofi says.

According to an official within the broader UN system, who was involved in preparing the resolution text but prefers to remain anonymous, India has expressed sympathy over the human rights situation in Iran. But it also has significant geopolitical and economic interests to consider. Because of its longstanding rivalry with Pakistan, India seeks to maintain good relations with Iran and Afghanistan at all times. India also sells most of its rice to Iran.

Several countries associated with the Latin American “hard left,” such as Venezuela, also vote no.

Other countries fear what international condemnation of Iran means for them.

“You have a group of countries that are really just uncomfortable with human rights discussions,” says Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director for Human Rights Watch.

Kumar says another recent vote at the Third Committee, on a Norway-backed motion that recognizes the need to protect human rights defenders, received only 14 no votes. The no’s came from Russia and China, as well as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Burundi, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, North Korea, and Myanmar. “They are countries that we constantly see being obstructive at the Third Committee level,” she says. “You’ll see a lot of overlap between those who voted no on Iran and who voted no on that.”

All of those countries voted no on the Iran resolution, except for Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, which abstained.


The Abstainers

The largest group of voters on the Iran resolution every year is the abstainers.

Many are members of loose blocs such as the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement, through which independent states sought to avoid Cold War entanglements by cooperating with each other. Iran is a member. Many are also members of the G77, a loose arrangement of developing nations that seek to support each other’s economic interests and enhance each other’s negotiating strength at the UN. Iran is also a member of the G77. Neither group has a coherent position on the Iran resolution.

Abstainers have diverse motives. Regional powerhouses like South Africa and Brazil both wield substantial influence on their respective continents, and draw influence from them.

South Africa’s position, the source close to the UN says, appears to be influenced by the fact that the UN has tabled country-specific resolutions pertaining to other African countries such as Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2007, she says, South Africa supported a “no action motion” that nearly caused the Iran resolution to be set aside.

Brazil frequently expresses doubts about the political process at the Third Committee. Until this year, it has often supported separate motions on human rights in Iran at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, a forum it regards as fairer. Brazil, says Camila Asano of the Brazilian human rights group Conectas, usually argues that the Third Committee resolution is insufficiently balanced because its sponsors do not open consultations over the text with “voices from other regions.”

Brazil is not alone in its skepticism over the Third Committee process. “Some countries don’t think the UN General Assembly should be singling out their peers for human rights abuses because there are other UN mechanisms in Geneva that look at these things on a universal basis,” Kumar says. “They don’t understand why poor countries are given a special spotlight in New York.”

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva conducts a “Universal Periodic Review” which examines the human rights records of all countries.

Some countries, such as Singapore, abstain from the Third Committee vote because they believe there should be no country-specific resolutions. Some countries abstain for economic reasons, such as Kenya, which relies on the Iranian tea market. Many small states see no advantage in taking sides.


Swing Voters

Only a small number of states change their votes every year, and most are small states a world away from Iran. “A lot of it has to do with lobbying,” Kumar says. “They are not in the region, and they see it as an opportunity to do a lot of politicking and vote trading. In that way the resolution can get politicized.”

Small Island nations in the Caribbean and Pacific, Kumar says, are vulnerable to lobbying from both sides. This year Grenada switched to yes after abstaining in previous years, while Trinidad and Tobago, Kiribati, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands all abstained after supporting the resolution in previous years.

According to the source close to the UN, Iran recently began promising aid to small Island states. Several years ago, she said, Iran promised Tuvalu an airstrip in hopes of changing its vote, but never came through. Now, she says, Iran has offered trade and diplomatic relations to Tonga, persuading it to abstain.

The tiny island of Kiribati, she says, used to give its proxy vote to New Zealand, which voted yes. Now Kiribati’s position has changed.

Small island states, she says, are also increasingly irritated with the US and Canada over perceived inaction on climate change, which threatens their existence.

Other notable countries that changed their votes this year include Mexico, which abstained after supporting the resolution for many years, and Guatemala, El Salvador, Gabon, and South Sudan, which have all begun supporting the resolution after abstaining.

Based on the statements Mexico and Guatemala made from the floor of the General Assembly, it appears Mexico is re-evaluating its approach following the nuclear deal, while Guatemalan diplomats cited first-hand experience of the positive effects UN human rights resolutions on their own country.

El Salvador abstained for two years following Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, a nominal reformer, in 2013. It now appears to have decided that Iran has made too little progress.

The small West African nation of Gabon is a new member of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, and wants to demonstrate its attention to human rights.

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, broke away from Sudan in 2011. Its ambassador to the UN, Francis Deng, is a human rights promoter, and former special advisor on genocide prevention to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Sudan was and remains a consistent no voter.


What Good is a Resolution?

Iran’s leaders routinely dismiss UN resolutions as meaningless and insulting. Whether a motion on human rights passes or not, it is unlikely to produce immediate results inside Iran. Even so, Mostofi says, the Third Committee’s resolution does have an effect. “Iran wants to defeat the resolution,” he says. “Nos are what Iran's government wants. But when these resolutions pass, the Iranian people know that most of the world knows there is a human rights crisis in Iran. That affects the psychology of Iranian civil society and the citizenry, because they know they are not isolated. We should never discount the domestic impact that these resolutions have.”


Related articles:

What Hardliners Really Think Of UN Resolutions

UN Vote: Iranophobia vs Human Rights


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