May 10, 2006 | WebMemo on International Organizations

Human Rights Relativism Redux: UN Human Rights Council Mirrors Discredited Human Rights Commission

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).[1] 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 HRC.[2] 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 year.[3]

 

Following that 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."[4] 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 Commission.

 

An Opportunity Lost

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.[5] 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."[6] The U.S. was joined in its opposition only by Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau.[7] Significantly, Burma, Syria, Libya, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe all voted in favor of the new Council.

 

Despite promises 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."[8] 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 effective.

 

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."[9] 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:

  • The Chinese 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."[10]
     
  • 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 tremendous achievements."[11]
     
  • 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…"[12]
     
  • Saudi Arabia 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."[13]

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.

 

These countries 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 occur.

 

Conclusion

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."[14] 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.

 

The question 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.

 

To increase 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.

 

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] For more information see Brett D. Schaefer, "The U.N. Human Rights Council Is Not Enough: Time for a New Approach to Human Rights," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1910, February 8, 2006, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/InternationalOrganizations/
bg1910.cfm
.

[2] "General Assembly Establishes New Human Rights Council by Vote of 170 in Favour to 4 Against, with 3 Abstentions," Department of Public Information, General Assembly Document GA/10449, March 15, 2006, at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2006/ga10449.doc.htm.

[3] Sean McCormack, "The United States Will Not Seek Election to the UN Human Rights Council," Press Statement, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, April 6, 2006, at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/64182.htm.

[4] Secretary Condoleezza Rice, "U.S. Pledge on Human Rights Council Membership," U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, April 13, 2006, at http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2006/64594.htm.

[5] "Human Rights Council," 2005 World Summit Outcome, General Assembly Resolution A/RES/60/1, October 24, 2005, p. 33, at http://www.un.org/summit2005/.

[6] Ambassador John R. Bolton, "Explanation of Vote by Ambassador John R. Bolton, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, on the Human Rights Council Draft Resolution, in the General Assembly,"

USUN Press Release # 51, March 15, 2006, at http://www.un.int/usa/06_051.htm.  

[7] "General Assembly Establishes New Human Rights Council by Vote of 170 in Favour to 4 Against, with 3 Abstentions," Department of Public Information, General Assembly Document GA/10449, March 15, 2006, at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2006/ga10449.doc.htm.

[8] Sean McCormack, "The United States Will Not Seek Election to the UN Human Rights Council," Press Statement, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, April 6, 2006, at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/64182.htm.

[9] Freedom House, "World's Worst Regimes Revealed," Press Release, March 31, 2005, at http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=70&release=255.

[10] China's Pledge to the Human Rights Council, at /static/reportimages/1D8370DC1E0C301F83B8ABB392E6D274.pdf.

[11] Cuba's Pledge to the Human Rights Council, at /static/reportimages/75C988E0B740080152E14819A4CE279D.pdf.

[12] Pakistan's Pledge to the Human Rights Council, at /static/reportimages/F28FF93F87AA6C54EFE774D173FF1DFC.pdf.

[13] Pakistan's Pledge to the Human Rights Council, at /static/reportimages/5BC9DC5B9023E1EFCBA4D115436AD382.pdf.

[14] Ambassador John R. Bolton, "Explanation of Vote by Ambassador John R. Bolton, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, on the Human Rights Council Draft Resolution, in the General Assembly,"

USUN Press Release # 51, March 15, 2006, at http://www.un.int/usa/06_051.htm.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom