Human rights advocates have expressed concerns about the UN Security Council’s performance under the leadership of an African country viewed as oppressive.
Mr Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, ruler of Equatorial Guinea since a 1979 military coup, has been presiding over Africa-related debates on the Security Council this month.
President Obiang, the world’s longest-ensconced leader, plays that diplomatically prestigious role because Equatorial Guinea is chairing the UN top’s body throughout February.
Equatorial Guinea is currently one of the 10 countries that hold two-year terms on the 15-member Security Council, which includes five veto-wielding powers: China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.
Equatorial Guinea occupies the chair in accordance with the council’s system of monthly rotating leadership.
The small, oil-rich West African state allows almost no political freedoms or civil liberties, according to the US State Department and many independent monitoring groups.
In its 2017 worldwide survey of human rights, the US State Department cited multiple abuses in Equatorial Guinea, including the use of “deadly force against political opponents” of President Obiang’s regime.
The country’s rulers are also said to exhibit “disregard for the rule of law” as well as “denial of freedoms of press, assembly, and association.”
The State Department survey further points to “violence against women, including rape, with limited government action to investigate or prosecute those responsible.”
But Equatorial Guinea’s record of repression does not set it apart from most UN member-states, notes Louis Charbonneau, UN director for Human Rights Watch.
“The UN offers all governments a regular platform to speak on issues, and there is no exclusion test for governments that display hypocrisy,” Mr Charbonneau wrote in an email on Wednesday.
He added: “President Obiang as the head of a government that brutally represses political opposition in Equatorial Guinea, and who has maintained his iron grip on power for longer than any other president in the world, is no exception.”
Mr Charbonneau downplayed the significance of Equatorial Guinea’s temporary chairmanship of the Security Council, saying that the role is largely symbolic.
But recent pronouncements by President Obiang’s government indicate that his country is using its council position to present itself as worthy of international respect.
“In practice, Equatorial Guinea has aligned itself with a set of Security Council members, led by Russia and China, that are seeking to “dismantle the human rights pillar of the UN,” Mr Charbonneau said in an interview.
These countries put forward the view that national sovereignty takes precedence over attempts to influence governments’ internal policies, including on human rights.
Equatorial Guinea recently sided with China and Russia in opposition to allow the Security Council to discuss the internal situation of Venezuela, which has been experiencing political turmoil and economic collapse.
South Africa, another UN Security Council’s 10 rotating members, also voted against debating Venezuela’s crisis.
Cote d’Ivoire, Africa’s other temporary member, abstained on that vote, as did Indonesia. The nine other council members — Belgium, Germany, Dominican Republic, France, Kuwait, Peru, Poland, the UK and US — succeeded in putting Venezuela on the agenda.
Mr Charbonneau views South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire as “swing states” in regard to human rights issues that come before the UN Security Council.
Those two countries’ positions cannot necessarily be forecast, he said. “We keep a close eye on swing states,” he added.
Human rights advocates acknowledge that countries with comparatively strong voting records in the council do not consistently act in accordance with their expressed principles.
Mr Charbonneau said that the US, for example, routinely defends Israel against criticisms of its treatment of the Palestinians.