China and Vietnam gained seats Tuesday as Asia's representatives on the U.N.'s top human rights body despite criticism of their rights records.
They joined other alleged rights violators Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Cuba as well as eight other nations for the 14 seats up for grabs on the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council for a three-year period beginning Jan. 1, according to a U.N. statement.
The Geneva-based council is an inter-governmental body within the U.N. system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them.
"Today the U.N. General Assembly elected egregious human rights abusers China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam to the U.N. Human Rights Council, dealing a severe blow to the credibility and efficacy of a body that was supposed to improve on its discredited predecessor," Geneva-based rights group U.N. Watch, a frequent critic of U.N. rights practices, said in a statement.
“This is a black day for human rights,” said Hillel Neuer, its executive director. “Today the U.N. sent a message that politics trumps human rights, and it let down millions of victims worldwide who look to the world body for protection.”
China and Vietnam have refused to let U.N. investigators visit their countries to check alleged rights abuses.
All members of the council, created in 2006 to replace the former Commission on Human Rights, have to be elected by the U.N. General Assembly.
In the battle to represent the Asia-Pacific region, China and Vietnam were joined by the Maldives and Saudi Arabia for the four vacant seats. But China, Asia's biggest economy, received fewer votes—176—than Vietnam's 184.
China had come under attack last month for arresting activists, curbing Internet use and suppressing ethnic minorities when the United Nations formally reviewed its rights record for the first time since Xi Jinping became president in March.
“China must uphold the highest human rights standards not only required by international human rights law but also required for membership in the Council,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China.
“These are also the same standards demanded by Chinese citizens themselves, whose growing calls for greater protection of their basic rights are loud, widespread, and cannot be ignored,” Hom said,
China is the only country among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council not to have ratified an important international human rights treaty on civil and political rights it signed 15 years ago.
China signed the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), on Oct. 5, 1998, but has yet to ratify it, despite repeated promises to do so, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
ICCPR guarantees essential rights ranging from the right to trial before an independent and impartial court to freedom of expression and political participation through regular and free elections. States party to the ICCPR are subject to a periodic examination by the U.N. Human Rights Council that assesses progress and deficiencies in the implementation of the treaty’s obligations.
“China wants to join the U.N.’s top human rights body, but it won’t submit itself to the standards that body is sworn to apply,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch said ahead of the vote.
China’s current legislation and practices violate or deny many of the rights set out in the ICCPR, from the right to vote in genuine periodic elections to the right not to be arbitrarily detained, the group said.
It also accused Beijing of routinely harassing, detaining, imprisoning, and torturing human rights activists and government critics, citing as an example the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” for his role in drafting Charter 08, a petition calling for the implementation of the rule of law and free elections.
Vietnam has also come under criticism for its crackdown on dissent as activists in the country are increasingly harassed and imprisoned simply for exercising their rights.
Amnesty International in a new report this month accused the authoritarian government in Hanoi of using laws and decrees to criminalize freedom of expression, both online and in the streets.
It also listed 75 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, some of whom it said have been locked up in harsh conditions for years.
"Vietnam is fast turning into one of Southeast Asia’s largest prisons for human rights defenders and other activists," said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Vietnam researcher. "The government’s alarming clampdown on free speech has to end,” he said.
In vying for the U.N. Human Rights Council seat, the Vietnamese government claimed it respected the rule of law, "but the repression of dissent violates Vietnam’s international commitments to respect freedom of expression,” he said.
Authorities have arrested, charged, detained, or imprisoned hundreds of dissenting voices over the years in the one-party communist state. This includes bloggers, labor and land rights activists, human rights defenders and those calling for peaceful democratic reform. Members of religious groups have also been targeted.
Since the beginning of 2012, at least 65 peaceful dissidents have been sentenced to long prison terms in some 20 trials that failed to meet international standards, Amnesty said.
Prisoners of conscience, it said, are often kept in lengthy pre-trial detention without access to family members or lawyers. "Trials fall far short of internationally accepted standards, often only last a few hours, and there is no presumption of innocence in practice."
In a letter to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ahead of the U.N. vote, Human Rights Watch accused Hanoi of painting a wrong picture to the world of the human rights situation in Vietnam, citing Hanoi's "note verbale" on Aug. 27, 2013 to the President of the U.N. General Assembly containing its human rights pledges and commitments in connection with its candidacy for council membership.
"The real human rights situation in Vietnam is very much contrary to the characterization in the note verbale," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the letter.
Particularly inconsistent with this candidacy, he said, "is the fact that the number of convictions on politically motivated charges is dramatically rising, with at least 61 such people sentenced to prison so far this year, compared with some 40 convictions known to Human Rights Watch in 2012."