The Obama Administration Will Not Make the U.N. Human Rights Council Effective


The Obama Administration Will Not Make the U.N. Human Rights Council Effective

May 11, 2009 7 min read
Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at Heritage's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

Elections for rotating membership on the 47-nation United Nations Human Rights Council will take place in the U.N. General Assembly on May 12.[1] While the U.S. is virtually assured of election to the council, having an American representative is unlikely to improve the council's dismal record. On the contrary, the U.S. presence will only give undue legitimacy to a fundamentally flawed institution.

The Wrong Decision

The U.N. Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace the U.N. Commission on Human Rights after that body's reputation had fallen so far that even U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged that "the commission's declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole." Regrettably, during negotiations to establish the council, many basic reforms and standards designed to ensure that it would not repeat the commission's mistakes failed to gain the necessary support in the General Assembly. Indeed, the council has continued many of the worst practices of the commission.[2]

On March 31, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. Susan Rice announced that the Obama Administration would reverse the Bush Administration's policy of non-engagement with the council, stating that America would seek a seat on the HRC in the upcoming May election to "make it a more effective body to promote and protect human rights."[3]

The sad reality is that such an objective is beyond the ability of any one state, even the United States. A critical reason for the failure of the Human Rights Council to fulfill its charge of "promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all"[4] is the absence of any meaningful membership criteria other than geographical representation.

Rather than adopting strong criteria to prevent human rights abusers from sitting on the new council, the council merely instructs member states to "take into account"[5] a candidate's human rights record when they vote. Not even states under Security Council sanction for human rights violations are excluded.[6] The failure to include such standards is inexcusable since it was widely recognized that a key failing of the Commission on Human Rights was the ability of human rights abusers to win seats on the commission and use their positions to block scrutiny of their human rights records.

The lack of membership criteria leaves the council open to infiltration and manipulation by the world's worst human rights abusers. Specifically, despite well-known and extensively documented histories of repression and violation of basic human rights, Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia have been elected to seats on the council. These countries have been key players in undermining the council's effectiveness.

U.S. Presence: Helpful Only in the Abstract

In the abstract, it may seem that having the U.S. on the council would help offset these counterproductive elements. The U.S. is a powerful and outspoken champion of human rights and can be expected to assert its views in the council.

Unfortunately, U.S. efforts will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Regional dynamics of council seat quotas--13 for Asia, 13 for Africa, 8 for Latin America and the Caribbean, 7 for Western European and Other States (or WEOG), and 6 for Eastern Europe--virtually assure that states hostile to human rights can dominate the agenda of the council for two reasons.

1. The Lack of "Free" Countries on the Council. The African and Asian groups--each with 13 seats on the council--have the highest concentrations of "not free" countries according to the annual Freedom in the World report by Freedom House.[7] The sheer number of countries from these two regions makes it extremely difficult to achieve a majority of states in the council that actually respect and observe human rights. For instance, even though the WEOG had seven "free" countries on the council in 2008, that achievement was swamped by the number of "partly free" and "not free" countries from Asia and Africa. Consider the following:

  • In 2006, the first HRC election produced a council in which only a bare majority (25 of 47 members, or 53 percent) were ranked "free" by Freedom House;[8]
  • The 2007 election marked a regression, with only 23 council members (49 percent) ranked as "free"; and
  • The 2008 election did not improve matters, again producing a council with only 23 "free" members.

The May 12 elections will not fundamentally alter the situation. Along with the WEOG, the Latin America and the Caribbean group and the Asian group are offering clean slates, i.e., nominating the same number of countries as there are open slots. This practice virtually assures the U.S. of being elected. Unfortunately, it also virtually assures the election of China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia--all considered "not free" and ranked among the "Worst of the Worst" of human rights oppressors in 2009 by Freedom House. In addition to the three "worst of the worst" council candidates, a joint report by Freedom House and UN Watch on the May 12 council election observes that "other 'not qualified' candidates among the 20 standing to fill 18 vacancies include Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Djibouti and Russia."[9]

Despite a few seats changing from one country to another, the net effect of the election on the council from the election of the WEOG, Asian, Latin American, and the Caribbean countries will be negligible in that they will be returning the same ratio of free, partly free, and not free countries to the council.

The African and Eastern European groups each have more countries running for election than there are open seats, thereby raising a possibility of positive change in the council's membership composition. However, even under the best case scenario (with Mauritius winning, Kenya> beating out incumbent Cameroon and Hungary beating out either Russia or Azerbaijan) the "free" countries will still represent a bare minority of 23 out of 47 seats because Senegal's ranking fell from "free" in 2008 to "partly free" in 2009,[10] although the number of "not free" countries would also decline by two. Under the worst-case scenario (with Mauritius and Hungary losing) the number of "free" countries declines to 21 out of 47 seats.

When free states are a minority on the council, the states hostile to human rights often find it easy to promote actions and positions that undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms.

2. The Influence of Regional and Ideological Groups. Because of geographical fidelity, a few determined states can often dominate the council's agenda by manipulating voting through regional blocs. Together the African and Asian states (26 seats) control a majority on the 47-seat council. Most countries in these regions are members of the Non-Aligned Movement and the G-77. Significantly, members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) also represent a majority in those regions. By getting a majority of the region to support counterproductive resolutions, influential countries in various regions (e.g., China in Asia, Cuba in Latin America, and Egypt in Africa) and groups like the OIC have been able to negatively influence council deliberations, resolutions, and decisions by getting the other countries in the region to vote with the position of the majority.

The end result has been amply demonstrated over the past three years with resolution after resolution condemning Israel or undermining freedom of speech in the name of combating defamation of religions passing overwhelmingly while others championing human rights practices fail to garner support. With only seven seats among the 47 total seats on the council, the WEOG countries are routinely outnumbered.[11] Indeed, in numerous votes over the past few years, the council has adopted harmful resolutions despite the objections of 11 or 12 nations--generally Western and other developed nations, such as Japan, that have a long-standing commitment to human rights.

U.S. membership on the council will not change this situation. Even if the U.S. won a seat, the U.S. would not replace China, Cuba, or some other human rights abuser serving on the council and undermining its actions but another Western country that generally shares America's views on human rights and would likely vote as the U.S. would.[12] Thus, the net effect of a U.S. vote will be minimal because other regions have a controlling majority of council votes.

Dramatic Change Required

In the end, the council seems destined to repeat the dismal record of its first three years, even with the U.S. possessing a seat at the table. Making the council effective will require a dramatic change in the quality of the council membership: The human rights abusers must be fewer, and they need to be replaced by governments that respect and abide by fundamental human rights standards and a willingness to promote them in the council and the U.N. more broadly.

Without serious and strict membership standards, the council will continue to disappoint. The record of the council and the unlikelihood of U.S. membership improving its effectiveness raise questions about the Obama Administration's decision to run for a seat in 2009. A wiser course of action would be to make U.S. participation contingent on an immediate review of the council and adoption of reforms that would make the council a more rigorous forum for examining human rights practices and holding violators accountable. As it stands, the best the U.S. can hope for as a member of the council is improvement at the margins, such as offering resolutions doomed to failure simply to raise the issue for discussion. If the Obama Administration truly wishes to make the council effective, it should immediately turn its focus to the reforms it wishes to press in the upcoming council review.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1]U.N. General Assembly, "Elections: Human Rights Council," at (May 8, 2009).

[2] For instance, repressive regimes successfully led an effort to eliminate human rights investigators for notorious human rights situations in Belarus, Cuba, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; disproportionately criticizing Israel, including focusing over 80 percent of all country specific resolutions on Israel and dedicating five of ten special sessions to Israel; passing resolutions endorsing constraints on freedom of speech to combat "defamation of religions"; and ignoring deplorable human rights situations in places like Zimbabwe, North Korea, China, Cuba and many other places.

[3]Press release, "U.S. to Run for Election to the UN Human Rights Council," U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, March 31, 2009, at (May 8, 2009).

[4]United Nations General Assembly, "Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly 60/251 Human Rights Council," Agenda items 46 and 120, April 3, 2006, at
(May 9, 2009).


[6]For a more detailed analysis, see Brett D. Schaefer, "The U.S. Is Right to Shun the U.N. Human Rights Council," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1910, May 2, 2008, at
; "The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Disastrous First Year and Discouraging Signs for Reform," Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 1042, September 5, 2007, at

[7]Freedom House, "Freedom in the World, 2006, 2007, and 2008 eds.," at (May 9, 2009)

[8]Member countries of the council following the 2006 election evaluated based on the 2006 Freedom in the World Report, member countries following the 2007 election evaluated based on the 2007 report, and member countries following the 2008 election evaluated based on the 2008 report.

[9]Steven Edwards, "Oppressors Running for UN Rights Council: Groups," Canwest News Service, May 5, 2009, at
(May 11, 2009).

[10]Freedom House, "Freedom in the World 2009: Global Data," at
(May 11, 2009).

[11]Countries on the council serve for three-year terms, which are staggered so that a portion of each region's seats are open each year. The current HRC members from the WEOG are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Belgium, Norway, and the U.S. are the WEOG candidates in the 2009 election to replace Canada, Germany and Switzerland.

[12]The U.S. winning a seat is all but a foregone conclusion. Countries are elected by a simple majority of the General Assembly (97 votes out of 192 member countries). If more countries run than there are open slots, the country with the most votes (provided they receive at least 97) wins. Since the Western Europe and Other States (WEOG) have offered only 3 countries for three open slots the chances that the U.S. will not be elected are slim.


Brett Schaefer

Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs