Last year, the
United States led efforts to replace the ineffective and
discredited United Nations Commission on Human Rights with a new
Human Rights Council (HRC).
Negotiations watered down the U.S. proposal to one that failed to
adopt any meaningful criteria for membership and left the new body
vulnerable to the same manipulation by human rights abusers that
plagued the old Commission. Despite these weaknesses, America stood
virtually alone in voting against the UN resolution creating the
Wary of adding credibility to a façade of reform, the U.S.
announced that, while it would support the new Council, it would
not run for a seat on the HRC this year and its decision to run in
the future would be based on the HRC's performance in the coming
decision, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the
U.S. would "work to ensure that countries elected to the Council
uphold the highest standards of human rights."
But despite the efforts of the Bush Administration and other states
that voted against human rights abusers, the May 9 elections proved
that the HRC is little different from the Commission. Following the
election, only about half of the 47 countries on the HRC are
"free," according to Freedom House. Slightly less than a fifth are
"not free," including noted human rights abusers Algeria, China,
Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. While the worst abusers
make up less of the Council than of the old Commission, these
states are still in a position to hamstring the Council as they did
The 2005 World
Summit Outcome Document's agreement to replace the discredited
Commission on Human Rights was a historic opportunity to replace
the United Nations' premier human rights body with a strong
advocate for human rights.
But negotiations in the General Assembly seriously weakened the
reform proposals and resulted in modest change and not fundamental
reform. Rather than adopt strong criteria to prevent human rights
abusers from sitting on the new Council, the resolution merely
requires member states to "take into account" a candidate's human
rights record when they vote for HRC members. Worse, the resolution
set a higher bar to suspend an elected HRC member-a vote of
two-thirds of the General Assembly-than the simple majority
necessary to win a seat.
The new Council's
lack of membership criteria leave it open to infiltration and
manipulation by the world's worst human rights abusers. This led
the U.S. to vote against the HRC in the General Assembly. "Absent
stronger mechanisms for maintaining credible membership, the United
States could not join consensus on this resolution," explained U.S.
Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. "We did not have sufficient
confidence in this text to be able to say that the HRC would be
better than its predecessor."
The U.S. was joined in its opposition only by Israel, the Marshall
Islands, and Palau.
Significantly, Burma, Syria, Libya, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Sudan,
Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe all voted in favor of the new
by a number of nations to vote against human rights abusers and a
series of public pledges by candidates to uphold human rights, the
U.S. remained concerned that human rights abusers would gain HRC
membership, and so it pledged to "actively campaign on behalf of
candidates genuinely committed to the promotion and protection of
human rights [and] actively campaign against states that
systematically abuse human rights."
The Administration also announced that it would not run for a seat
on the HRC in 2006 but might in 2007 if the Council proves
The early signs
have not been positive. Only half of the candidates in the May 9
election are considered "free" by Freedom House. Nearly 20 percent
of the 66 candidates are considered "not free" by Freedom House,
including notable human rights abusers Algeria, Cuba, China, Iran,
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Several of these countries were
listed in Freedom House's "The Worst of the Worst: The World's Most
Repressive Societies 2005."
While countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe chose not to run for
election, nothing prevents them from running in the future. They
could follow the lead of several countries this time around that
made pledges of their commitment to human rights that fly in the
face of their track records:
government pledged that it is "committed to the promotion and
protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Chinese
People… The National People's Congress has adopted nearly
300 laws and regulations related to the protection of civil and
political rights, ensuring complete freedom of the Chinese people
in movement, employment, access to information, religious belief
and ways of life."
Cuba claims that
"Cuban women and men have achieved significant progress in
enjoinment of al their human rights. Either in the area of civil
and political rights… the Cuban people can show to the
world, with deep modesty, but with full satisfaction and pride, its
In its pledge,
Pakistan notes, "Promotion of human dignity, fundamental freedoms
and human rights, equal status and rights of the followers of all
religions and prohibition of discrimination on account of religion,
race, caste or creed etc are enshrined in Articles 9-29 of the
Constitution… Sustainable democracy and empowerment at grass
root level, through good governance, have been established at the
local, provincial and national levels…"
claims a "confirmed commitment with the defense, protection and
promotion of human rights… Saudi Arabia pursues the policy
of active cooperation with international organizations in the field
of Human Rights and fundamental freedoms."
The May 9 election
validated U.S. concerns. When the dust settled, it was clear that
simply creating a new Council would not convince the General
Assembly to spurn the candidacies of human rights abusers. Despite
their poor human rights records and the transparently disingenuous
nature of their pledges, China, Cuba, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia
all succeeded in gaining support from a majority of the General
Assembly, thus winning seats on the Council. They were joined by
fellow abusers and unfree governments in Algeria and Russia.
were key players in undermining the effectiveness of the
now-defunct Commission on Human Rights, and so it is very likely
that they will play the same role on the Council, steering it away
from confronting human rights abuses within their borders and in
general. The United States must carefully monitor the performance
of the Council and use its influence to ensure that this does not
As John Bolton
explained, "The real test [of the HRC] will be the quality of
membership that emerges on this Council and whether it takes
effective action to address serious human rights abuse cases like
Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Burma."
The election of human rights abusers like Algeria, China, Cuba,
Pakistan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia demonstrates the failure of the
UN of this first test of the HRC.
remains, however, whether these counties will dominate the new
Council. The ease with which these countries were elected
demonstrates that human rights abusers can and do wield great
influence. The U.S. should work with other nations to ensure that
new HRC members- Algeria, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, and Saudi
Arabia-be the first targets of the Council's periodic human rights
reviews. The quality of these reviews will be a useful tool to
measure the dedication, effectiveness, and willingness of the HRC
to confront human rights abusers and to resist the influence of
those most determined to undermine its work. Only if the HCR
conducts strong, condemnatory reviews of these well-known abusers
should the U.S. consider seeking a seat in the future.
chances that the Council will be effective and prevent U.S.
taxpayer funds from going to waste, Congress should tie future
funding for the HRC to the body's effectiveness. Although the Bush
Administration has promised to fund the HRC during the current
year, Congress should consider its performance when debating
appropriations for the United Nations in the coming months.
Congress also should request that the State Department report on
the Council's performance and restrict funds if the Council fails
to confront prominent human rights abusers, such as China, Cuba,
Sudan, and Zimbabwe.
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.