Rick Bajornas
World News /17 Oct 2019
10.17.19

Costa Rica Bids for the Human Rights Council

The president of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, announced Costa Rica’s bid for the Human Rights Council (HRC) at the United Nations. Two years ago, the Group of Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC) had put forth Brazil and Venezuela to fill the two seats assigned to the Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) region at HRC for the 2020-2022 cycle. Eleanor Openshaw of International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) said that Costa Rica’s bid comes as good news, given the dire situation of Venezuela’s human rights record in the 2019 OHCHR report on Venezuela. Costa Rica is indeed the best candidate for the HRC given its track record of defending human rights, and its most recent award wins as Champions of the earth.

Costa Rica’s candidature announcement on October 3rd, 2019 is cutting it pretty close to the election of the HRC, which is set for October 17th. By the time the votes are counted, the small Central American nation will have been campaigning for two weeks, as Brazil and Venezuela have been doing for two years. The defense of human rights, a central directive of Costa Rican foreign policy, is nothing new for this small nation. Even before its mid-century regime change, Costa Rica had securely institutionalized basic human rights and civil liberties in its constitution. Early presidents established the region’s first universal primary education (1869), abolished the death penalty (1882), allowed legitimate political competition (1889), and established the first international court (1907-1918.) Labor rights and universal social services were introduced early in the twentieth century as a conscious strategy to modernize the country.

Costa Rica has maintained its human rights values to date and has held a place on the Human Rights Council and its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, nine times. The home of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is in the nation’s capital of San José. The nation was central in establishing the Human Rights Commission and the position of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights position, which was based on an initial proposal introduced by the 1966 president of the Human Rights Commission, Fernando Volio Jiménez, from Costa Rica in 1965 and renewed at periodic intervals.

On September 26th, 2019, Costa Rica won the UN’s highest Environment award, Champions of the Earth. 98 percent of Costa Rica’s energy is renewable and forest cover stands at more than 53 percent after painstaking work to reverse decades of deforestation. In 2017, the country ran for a record 300 days solely on renewable power. The aim is to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Seventy percent of all buses and taxis are expected to be electric by 2030, with full electrification projected for 2050. In an era where environmental rights are being addressed as the number one human rights issue, Costa Rica is leading.

In his UN General Assembly speech this year, President Alvarado mentioned that the Vice President of Costa Rica, Epsy Campbell, will be leading a conference on the issues facing Latinos of African descent. The conference will be held in Costa Rica and shows the country’s embrace of marginalized identities and its efforts in social inclusion.

The same week Costa Rica was awarded the UN environment award as Vice President Campbell was honored with the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network Award by the African Union at the UN for her leadership. Campbell is the first woman of African descent to become vice president in Costa Rica and the second female vice president of African descent in the Americas following Viola Burnham of Guyana.

More importantly, Costa Rica’s achievements as a human rights defender is the reason why the country is running for HRC seat. Operative Paragraph 9 of the UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/60/251 states that members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. It is this idea that Costa Rica is trying to defend. This is a moment where a state that professes the importance of human rights is putting its money where its mouth is. It is stepping up even more. In the words of Ambassador Rodrigo A. Carazo, “This isn’t a Costa Rica vs. Venezuela campaign, it is about human rights values and giving member states options. We are a country that has a proven track record of upholding and promoting human rights and our selection can only strengthen the mandate of the Human Rights Council.”

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Greta Thunberg’s speech at UNGA and her message of climate change was the biggest human rights issue reverberated around the world. What type of leader do we want to see leading the charge on human rights? On October 17th, member states will have to choose between: Costa Rica, a nation that has not had an army for over 70 years and that is taking climate change head-on; Venezuela, a government that is rationing out food supplies to a favored few and using violence against its own citizens or Brazil, where the head of state says that the Amazon is not burning.

The Human Rights Council has come under strong criticism in recent years for allowing membership to some countries that have grave human rights violations. Such countries usually become members through vote swapping to avoid criticism of their human rights records. The allowance of membership to countries with such poor human rights records only weakens the authority of the Council.

This pivotal moment can be the redeeming opportunity for the Human Rights Council and its member states. By choosing Costa Rica, not only are states choosing a country that has a clean human rights record to lead, but also, as the UN award mentions, one that champions the earth.

If you're interested in writing for International Policy Digest - please send us an email via submissions@intpolicydigest.org