Morocco and South Africa vie for rights council top role, exposing legitimacy stakes


Countries will vote in a secret ballot for the second time in the human rights body’s history after a deadlock over the selection process.

The Human Rights Council will vote on Wednesday to select its next president after African states reached an impasse over which of the two candidates – Morocco or South Africa – to put forward.

The vote, which will be held through a secret ballot, comes after the 47-member council resumed work this week without a leader for only the second time in its 18-year history.

The presidency rotates each year between five regional groups that usually come to a consensus on which candidate to endorse. However, members of the Africa group could not resolve the deadlock.

Neither country was willing to withdraw after clashing over the procedure for submitting their candidacy, with Morocco understood to have presented its credentials first through the African Union in Addis Ababa, and South Africa via the Africa group in Geneva.

A proposal was made to settle the decision with a vote within the group but Morocco is understood to have refused, preferring its chances with a vote among all member states.

The two candidates in the running are Morocco’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Omar Zniber, and the South African ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi.

Wednesday’s vote will be only the second time that the council is forced to hold a secret ballot – the first happening in 2021 when Fiji won the presidency, beating the two other Asia Pacific contenders, Bahrain and Uzbekistan.

Though votes are a rare event – with regional blocks preferring to resolve candidacy issues among themselves – allowing the decision to go to a vote makes for fairer and more transparent elections, Geneva NGOs have pointed out.

“As we have seen in recent years with the defeat of council candidates such as Russia, competitive elections enable electors to make choices based on human rights considerations, among others, rather than having that choice made for them behind closed doors,” Phil Lynch director of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), told Geneva Solutions.

Observers say it is likely to be a close call, with Morocco likely to win the support of many Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members as well as western states, while South Africa has significant political clout with countries in the global South.

The winning candidate will succeed Václav Bálek, ambassador to the Czech Republic.

A position of influence

The presidency vote comes at a time of unprecedented challenges to human rights worldwide and amid greater political polarisation, which has permeated an increasingly fractious Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Though the president plays a relatively neutral role compared to the UN’s main rights honcho, the high commissioner for human rights, some say its task of keeping the council in order has become increasingly important amid a tense global landscape.

The fact that two candidates are vying for the post also points to its relevance, added Lynch. “It demonstrates that states consider the Human Rights Council to be important and influential, and the office of the President to be substantive and not merely ceremonial.”

Nkosi, South Africa’s candidate, told Geneva Solutions that the presidency was “more than a matter of national prestige” and chairing meetings. “We want to use the presidency to de-escalate current tensions and build bridges across the existing divides at the council.”

He added that he would also work to restore trust between council members and encourage more interactive dialogue while also using the position to enhance the council’s credibility.

“It’s very important that we enhance the image of credibility of the council as the custodian and as an effective and efficient instrument for the promotion and the protection of human rights,” Nkosi said, claiming South Africa, with its track record in promoting human rights, was the “only legitimate candidate” at this time for the presidency role.

Questionable human rights records

Morocco’s bid for the presidency has sparked strong condemnation among several human rights groups, in particular among rights defenders from Western Sahara, which has been occupied by Morocco since 1975.

Activists supporting Sahrawi self-determination have been the subject of harsh crackdowns by Moroccan authorities, ranging from asset freezes to torture, arbitrary arrests, to expulsion from their homeland.

Read also: W.Saharan activist: Pegasus attack ‘a new sophisticated tactic’ to undermine our rights

UN experts have denounced Morocco’s violations against rights defenders and the country is also regularly mentioned in the UN secretary general’s annual report as one of the countries committing acts of intimidation and reprisals against individuals engaging with the UN.

An open letter from Sahrawi civil society and signed by 188 NGOs, which has been circulating ahead of the vote, urges the council to reject Rabat’s candidacy, arguing that a state that obstructs dialogue with the UN and refuses to implement recommendations from UN bodies would “crush the very legitimacy that the Human Rights Council depends on to survive”.

Ghalia Djimi, a Sahrawi human rights activist and one of the coordinators of the campaign, who was disappeared for more than three years in 1987 while preparing to participate in a protest, told Geneva Solutions: “Our main reproach against Morocco, first and foremost, is the violation of article one of the UN charter that states that all peoples have the right to self-determination.”

Occupied by Spain until 1975, Western Sahara is listed by the UN as a non-decolonised territory and therefore a non-self-governing territory.

A UN mission deployed in Western Sahara since 1991 is tasked by the Security Council with organising a referendum on the territory’s future, however, the referendum has never taken place.

Fellow rights activist Aminatou Haidar, who is president and co-founder of the Sahrawi Body Against Moroccan Occupation and whose members she says have been harassed by Moroccan authorities, added that countries that claim to be democratic should not support its candidacy.

“Should Morocco be successful in its candidate becoming president, this will only encourage it to vigorously continue to commit human rights violations,” she told Geneva Solutions.

Ole von Uexkull, executive director of Right Livelihood, a Swedish foundation with offices in Geneva that lobbies on behalf of rights defenders, added: “As a country with an appalling human rights record, which militarily occupies the territory of Western Sahara and violently represses its people every day, Morocco blatantly fails to meet the minimum criteria required to uphold the institutional integrity of the council and its work.”

However, others have noted Morocco’s otherwise proactive engagement with the council. “Morocco has always had this cloud hanging over them (Editor’s note: referring to Western Sahara) but historically it has been the most active of the two at the Human Rights Council until this current South African ambassador,” noted one observer, who asked not to be named.

Ambassadors serve in a personal capacity and in this regard, “both are very active and both very committed to the council,” the person added.

The diplomatic mission for Morocco mission has not yet responded to Geneva Solutions’ requests for comment.

Stepping up to the plate

Ahead of the vote, 19 NGOs, including ISHR, have signed an appeal to states to make sure the presidency goes to a member “that upholds the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”, particularly on the issue of reprisals and intimidation of defenders.

According to a scorecard created by ISHR, both South Africa and Morocco fail to meet all the standards set by the Human Rights Council. For example, neither has ratified all nine core international human rights treaties and their related optional protocols.

Nkosi said that South Africa was in the process of ratifying outstanding protocols and treaties, for example, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which he said would be deposited soon. “All the provisions of these protocols fall far below the standards that we set domestically,” he argued.

Nicolas Agostini, Geneva representative for the African NGO DefendDefenders, also one of the signatories, said: “From a civil society perspective, the key criteria for the HRC presidency are integrity, impartiality, and an ability to defend civil society space.”

“The president’s country should be able to demonstrate a decent human rights record, and its reputation should not be stained by reprisals committed against human rights defenders,” he told Geneva Solutions.

Courtesy Geneva Solutions

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