I recently wrote about President Elbegdorj’s address to the UN General Assembly this September and his statement that he is seeking UN recognition for Mongolia’s status as “permanently neutral”. Elbegdorj ended this speech with a call for support from other UN members for Mongolia’s candidature for membership in the UN Human Rights Council.
On Oct 28 172 (of 192) UN members voted Mongolia onto the Human Rights Council with the highest number of votes for any candidate in the Asia/Pacific region where the election was actually competitive with seven countries vying for five spots.
There are two aspects that make this interesting: a) what does election onto the HRC mean for Mongolia’s foreign relations?, b) what does this mean in terms of Mongolia’s human rights record and substantive engagement with a human rights agenda?
Mongolia’s Foreign Policy and the UN
I argued that the claim for “permanent neutrality” was a natural outgrowth of Mongolia’s overall foreign policy, particularly the Third Neighbour Policy.
[Perhaps I should start referring to the Third Neigbour Policy as “3NP” since I write about it fairly regularly. That offers the possibility of establishing #3NP as a more specific hashtag alternative to the generic #MGLfp.]
Likewise, election to the human rights council is a measure of the success of Mongolia’s attempt to engage the rest of the world beyond Third Neigbours and specifically to engage the UN.
Leaving aside speculation about Elbegdorj’s post-presidential-retirement planning and whether that may involve a UN position, the UN has been a focus of various Mongolian initiatives.
- UN peacekeeping: According to UN Statistics, there are currently (30 Sept 2015) 933 troops and 14 military experts from Mongolia involved in peace-keeping operations. That puts Mongolia ahead of populous countries like France (866 troops) or Japan (272 troops)
- UNEP: Mongolian MP S Oyun serves as the president of the UN Environment Assembly, and Mongolia hosted World Environment Day in 2013
- Security Council acceptance of Mongolia’s status as a nuclear-free power
- I recently had a chance to learn more about the International Think Tank for Landlocked Developing Countries which is being established in Ulaanbaatar
What does Mongolia gain from all of these activities? Most significantly, a prominence in international affairs that belies Mongolia’s population or economic significance.
Does that prominence translate into material benefits? Possibly. Mongolia, after all, has been the recipient of generous donor activities by various development programmes. But the 3NP is ultimately meant to balance the somewhat overbearing influence that Mongolia’s two neighbours have or might chose to exercise more directly at some point.
In this area, I would note that election to the Human Rights Council is a milestone for the 3NP and for Mongolian visibility on the world stage.
This election is also a stepping stone to a successful run for membership in the UN Security Council for 2022 as mentioned in Elbegdorj’s address to the UN General Assembly in 2014.
Human Rights in Mongolia
The question of the human rights situation in Mongolia is a difficult one. There are two aspects to this question: a) what has Mongolia committed to (in part in the context of its HRC candidacy), b) what is the actual situation.
Mongolia’s commitments have been detailed in its statement ahead of the HRC election. This lists various conventions that Mongolia has signed up for (too numerous to list here, particularly since I lack the UNology background to be able to say much about the relative significance of these), but also includes action items derived from the human rights report. These recommendations appear on p. 4 of the document and include:
1. Abolition of the death penalty;
2. Measures against torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment;
3. Protection of the rights and interests of vulnerable groups, including children, women, the elderly and persons with disabilities;
4. Increasing women’s participation at the decision-making level;
5. Combating domestic violence;
6. Protection of the rights of the child;
7. Combating human trafficking;
8. Ensuring full respect of the right to freedom of expression;
9. Accession to international treaties and reflecting them in domestic legislation, and the improving of reporting on the implementation of those treaties;
10. Strengthening the mandate of the National Human Rights Commission;
11. Organizing trainings on the application of international human rights treaties, and others.
Voluntary pledges and commitments (pp. 5-6) include:
- principles of non-selectivity, universality and indivisibility of human rights
- continued support the United Nations High Commissioner for
- strive to promote non-discrimination, gender equality and women’s empowerment and the rights
of persons with disabilities, combat violence against women and children, fight human trafficking in all its forms,protect freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of religion and belief, and freedom of assembly and association, and promote the protection of human rights defenders.
consider ratifying the Kampala Amendments to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and consider making a declaration under article 22 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It will also consider accession to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.
support international efforts towards the elaboration of a legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.
- pursue the comprehensive implementation of its international obligations on human rights and enhance the promotion and protection of human rights at the national level through expanded collaboration with all stakeholders.
- ongoing legal reform covers an extensive list of rights to justice and due process of law, including the rights of suspects, accused, defendants, advocates, victims and witnesses.
- strengthen its ongoing efforts to promote human rights education, gender equality and the empowerment of women, including in rural areas, implement measures to ensure the protection of the rights of the child, of the elderly and of people with disabilities and to address violence and discrimination against women, and intensify its fight against trafficking in persons and its prevention.
- will implement measures directed at protecting the rights of nomadic people with regard to the use of land and traditional natural resources and at ensuring a conducive legal framework for the protection of human rights defenders.
- values people’s participation as a key element of human rights and democracy and to this end, if elected, will work closely with national civil society organizations in relation to its deliberations as a member of the Council.
[My selection of total number of commitments listed.]
As one might expect in a candidate’s statement, the rhetoric is flowery and dripping with aspirations, “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, justice and equality are at the heart of all policies pursued by the Government of Mongolia.” (p. 7)
The two areas where questions about the human rights situation in Mongolia are raised most commonly are a) arbitrary detention and violence in policy custody and prisons, and b) the alleged existence of North Korean labour camps.
For both of these topics, I have found it very difficult to find concrete evidence over the years.
To most Mongolians, it does seem very plausible that detention can be somewhat arbitrary and possibly at the behest of a powerful person. There do seem to be a number of cases that many people interpret as a form of political harassment where the Anti-Corruption Agency in particular seems to be instrumentalized through its investigative powers. That would be arbitrary detention in the case of relatively prominent, visible victims.
When it comes to more anonymous “regular” Mongolians, the allegations of arbitrary detention and some violence also seem plausible. This is an area where I’ve been asked to offer an expert opinion in various asylum procedures in North America and Europe. Some of these claims centre on the asylum applicant’s conflict with some powerful person who is then able to mobilize the police to harass the claimant. This, as well, seems entirely plausible, though I am never able to speak to the specifics of a case, more to the general plausibility.
Arbitrary detention is thus a regular entry in international human rights reports, such as those by Amnesty International.
The second issue that keeps being mentioned and that I also receive somewhat regular questions about by journalists is the alleged existence of labour camps filled with North Korean forced labour. The plausibility of this allegation rests on the historically close links between North Korea and Mongolia that are rooted in the Korean War and the safe-keeping of a large number of Korean children in Mongolia during this time. A situation where the North Korean government proposes the contract employment of North Koreans in significant numbers, presumably in construction, is thus entirely imaginable, and the assertion that a number of these North Koreans may be forced into this role, is also plausible. This allegation appears to be rooted in a 2008 Human Rights Watch report. As far as I can tell, this allegation has been recycled/resurrected periodically by journalists. I am not aware of more concrete evidence for this situation.
Other human rights issues that are mentioned periodically are violence against women, some ethnic groups (most frequently, ethnic Chinese), and LGBT discrimination. Again, when these are mentioned as potential problems, there is a certain face validity to that, but allegations of actual cases of abuses remain unsubstantiated to my knowledge.
In discussions of these allegations there are always international and domestic perspectives. Internally, some Mongolians get quite frustrated with the flowery rhetoric of human rights and democracy from their government when they are also aware of violations or at least overly flexible interpretations of some laws. But when comparing Mongolia to many other countries in the world, the extent and nature of abuses seems somewhat reduced in significance. In the case of the UN HRC it is very clear that there are and have been MANY members of the Council that have significantly worse human rights records than Mongolia does, so I would certainly not for a moment suggest to question the legitimacy of Mongolia’s participation in this UN forum.