It’s Problematic that Venezuela Has a Seat on the Human Rights Council. But the Trump Administration Partly Has Itself to Blame

Venezuela was one of 14 countries to win a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in elections held by the UN General Assembly.

Venezuela is not the first bad actor to win a seat on the Human Rights Council; nor the only bad actor to win a seat on the Human Rights Council in these elections. But the fact that the Maduro regime has won a seat on the Human Rights Council is perhaps the sharpest example of how the Human Rights Council can be co-opted by bad actors and rivals of the United States when the USA is disengaged.

The seats on the 47 member body are apportioned based on a UN principal known as equitable geographic distribution, meaning that a specific number of seats are reserved for countries from each region of the world.  In the case of this most recent Human Rights Council election, there were three countries running for two open seats available to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

To be elected to the Human Rights Council requires a majority vote in the General Assembly. If all member states are voting, this means that at least 97 countries must, in a secret ballot, vote to elect the nominated country.  In the past, when a rival of the United States that also has a horrible human rights record has sought a seat on the Human Rights Council, the United States has sometimes been able to use its global influence to block that country. In 2010, for example, the US successfully mounted a global campaign against Iran when it ran for a seat on the Council. (And, it should noted, one year later the Council appointed a special human rights rapporteur to focus specifically on abuses in Iran. ) More recently, in 2016 the US helped to lead a coalition that blocked Russia from winning a seat on the Council.

Those wins for the United States all came during the Obama administration, which took a different approach to the Human Rights Council than the Trump administration. The Obama administration successfully sought and won a seat on the Human Rights Council; and in the years it was not a member of the Council, the Obama administration was still productively engaged with it.

The Trump administration, however, withdrew the United States from the Council in 2018. To the extent it engages the Council it at all, it is mostly to criticize from the sidelines.

This brings us to the recent election for two seats for Latin America. At first, Brazil and Venezuela were the only two countries vying for those two seats, all but guaranteeing them victories. Costa Rica entered the race late, ostensibly to block Venezuela.  In the end, though, Costa Rica narrowly lost.  The results: Brazil 153;  Venezuela 105; Costa Rica 96. It is not a stretch to conclude that Venezuela’s (thin) margin of victory can be partly attributed to America’s declining global influence in general and its disengagement from the Human Rights Council in particular.

The lesson here is that when the United States engages with the Council, it is more likely to secure outcomes that it views favorably. Venezuela securing a seat on the Council is certainly regrettable from a human rights perspective. But it is also an inevitable consequence of the Trump administration’s retreat from the Human Rights Council.