The United Nations General Assembly voted in March 2006 to
replace the Commission on Human Rights with the Human Rights
Council. The Commission, dominated by human rights abusers who used
their influence to block scrutiny or criticism, proved to be a poor
champion of human rights.
Nearly two years after it was created, the United States'
concerns that the Council would not be an improvement over the
Commission have been realized. Like the Commission, the Council has
focused on criticizing Israel--condemning it in 19 separate
resolutions and decisions. No other country--not even noted human
rights violators like Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, or
Sudan--has received a fraction of the criticism or attention that
the Council has focused on Israel.
States hostile to human rights have undermined the Council's
agenda by eliminating scrutiny of states such as Iran and Cuba,
constraining the independence of human rights experts, and
obtaining passage of a resolution on defamation of religion that
condones constraints on freedom of expression.
Despite its poor record, even skeptics hoped that the Council
could do a service for human rights through its Universal Periodic
Review of human rights practices in all countries. Sadly, even this
process has fallen far short of expectations.
Based on the record of the U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.S.
was clearly right to distance itself from this body. In the face of
strong criticism from human rights groups, the U.S. refused to run
for a seat on the Council, a move that would have lent this flawed
institution underserved credibility.
The Council is a sham that does not effectively promote or
protect human rights. The Bush Administration should be
congratulated for its recent decision to withhold an amount
equivalent to the U.S. share of the Human Rights Council budget
from its 2008 funding for the United Nations.
The False Promise of the Human Rights
Since the birth of the United Nations, protecting and advancing
fundamental human rights has been one of the organization's primary
objectives. The drafters of the U.N. Charter included a pledge by
member states "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in
the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of
men and women." U.N. treaties and conventions, such as the
Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which the General Assembly
passed in 1948, form the core of international standards for human
Sadly, the adoption of the Universal Declaration has been, in
many ways, the high-water mark of U.N. efforts to promote human
rights. The U.N.'s subsequent record in getting member states to
adopt and protect the fundamental human rights identified in that
document has been riddled with failure and inaction.
For nearly six decades, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights
served as the premier U.N. human rights body charged with reviewing
the human rights performance of states and promoting human rights
around the world. However, the Commission devolved into a feckless
organization used by human rights abusers to block criticism and as
a forum for attacks on Israel. The Commission's disrepute grew so
great that even former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan
acknowledged, "We have reached a point at which the Commission's
declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the
United Nations system as a whole, and where piecemeal reforms will
not be enough."
After lengthy deliberations and negotiations, the U.N. General
Assembly voted in March 2006 to replace the Commission with a new
Human Rights Council. Regrettably, during the negotiations, the
General Assembly rejected many basic reforms and standards that had
been proposed by the U.S. to ensure that the Council would not
repeat the mistakes of the Commission.
Despite minimal safeguards to prevent human rights abusers from
using the Council as they had the Commission, Council
supporters--including U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights
Louise Arbour--were quick to declare that the new body represented
the "dawn of a new era" in promoting human rights in the United
The U.S. was concerned that the Council would not be an
improvement over the old Commission and voted against the
resolution creating the Council. Significantly, states well know
for human rights violations--including Burma, Syria, Libya, China,
Cuba, Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe--all voted in
favor of the new Council in the General Assembly.
Predictably, the 47-seat body is not a significant
improvement over the hugely discredited Commission on Human Rights.
The Council's lack of substantive membership criteria rendered it
open to infiltration and manipulation by the world's worst human
Who Runs and Who Wins?
The Council's first two elections were less than heartening. The
first Council election in 2006 produced a Council in which 25 out
of 47 members (53 percent) were ranked "free" by Freedom House. Some
of the more disreputable human rights abusers--Burma, North Korea,
Sudan, and Zimbabwe--did not run for seats. Iran and Venezuela ran
for seats but were unsuccessful, although Venezuela received enough
votes (101) to win a seat if other states had not won more
The 2007 election marked a regression from 2006. The number of
"free" countries on the Council according to Freedom House rankings
declined, and the number of "not free" countries increased. The
only significant victory in the 2007 election for Council members
was blocking Belarus from winning a seat. Yet until about a week
before the election, Belarus and Slovenia were the only two
candidates for the two open Eastern European seats. Only enormous
pressure from human rights groups and the U.S. persuaded Bosnia and
Herzegovina to run, narrowly denying Belarus a seat on the
Council. However, Angola, Egypt, Qatar, and
Bolivia-- states with dismal human rights records--were elected
The May 21, 2008, election will not significantly improve the
composition of the Council's membership. There are currently 20
candidates for 15 seats. The best-case scenario would have the
Council essentially maintain its current composition with 23 "free"
countries, 15 "partly free" countries, and nine "not free"
countries. The worst case would see the Council fall to 21 "free"
countries, 18 "partly free" countries, and 10 "not free" countries.
Thus, at best, the Council would continue to have only a minority
of "free" countries that actually practice the freedoms the Council
is supposed to promote.
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
in its first two years. These countries have been key players in
undermining the effectiveness of the Council. However, they have
been abetted by the reluctance of free, democratic states such as
South Africa and India to support human rights initiatives on the
The combination of having states on the Council determined to
undermine initiatives to promote human rights and unwillingness by
a number of "free" and "partly free" countries to oppose their
efforts has resulted in making the Council a weak and ineffectual
instrument to promote basic human rights. For instance:
- The Council decided to discontinue consideration of the human
rights situations in Iran and Uzbekistan under the 1503 Procedure and to
eliminate the experts focused on Belarus and Cuba, despite
extensive evidence of ongoing human rights violations in all of
- Like the Commission, the Council has repeatedly singled out
Israel for condemnation. The Council has focused on criticizing
Israel, condemning it in 19 separate resolutions and decisions,
while ignoring human rights abuses committed by Hamas and
Hezbollah. No other country--not even noted human
rights violators like Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, or
Sudan--has received a fraction of the criticism or attention that
the Council has focused on Israel.
- The Council adopted new rules and procedures, including a new
"Code of Conduct," to intimidate independent experts. According to
the U.S. Department of State, many of the institution-building
procedures adopted by the Council are "seriously flawed" and will
make the many problems of the Council "even worse."
- One of the most troubling trends in the Council is the success
the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has had in passing
"religious defamation" measures. As noted by the Becket Fund:
While a religious defamation resolution purports to advance
civility, its application inevitably stifles the free expression of
ideas and beliefs because they protect ideas and beliefs rather
than people.... All religions make truth claims that conflict with
one another, thus making the interpretation of religious defamation
laws subjective to the beliefs of the judicial authority.
Naturally, the subjective nature of religious defamation laws
creates dangerous situations for minority religions and their
assurance of freedom of conscience.
The Human Rights Council passed a resolution in March 2007 that
expressed "deep concern at attempts to identify Islam with
terrorism, violence, and human rights violations" and urged states
to "take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for
all religions and their value systems and to complement legal
systems with intellectual and moral strategies to combat religious
hatred and intolerance." Worryingly, the resolution asserts that
the right to freedom of expression may be limited out of "respect
for religions and beliefs." The OIC again passed a resolution in
the 7th Session of the Council (held March 3-28, 2008) on
"combating the defamation of religion" with text very similar to
the resolution passed in March 2007.
- The Council is responsible for organizing the 2009 Durban
Review Conference, commonly referred to as Durban II, which is the
follow-up to the disastrous 2001 United Nations World Conference
Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related
Intolerance. The 2001 conference, held in Durban, South Africa,
fell victim to nations and non-governmental organizations that
hijacked it to criticize Israel and the United States. After
unsuccessfully trying to counter those efforts, the U.S. delegation
walked out of the 2001 conference. The Council decided that it will
act as the Preparatory Committee for Durban II--with Libya as
chair--electing 19 other countries to serve on the bureau for the
Preparatory Committee that will set the agenda and objectives for
the Review Conference. Among the 19 vice-chairs are Cuba, Iran,
Pakistan, Russia, and South Africa, not one of which has
distinguished itself as a champion of equality or human rights
during its tenure on the Council. Placing OIC nations in key
positions on the Preparatory Committee paves the way for having
Durban II follow in the footsteps of the 2001 debacle.
The Universal Periodic Review
Despite its poor record, even skeptics hoped that the Council
could do a service for human rights through a Universal Periodic
Review (UPR) of human rights practices in all countries. The
General Assembly resolution that created the Council required the
body to review the human rights situation in all U.N. member states
to eliminate the selective reviews undertaken by the
Although a review of the human rights practices in all countries
is a welcome improvement over the Commission, the procedures for
the review adopted by the Council are very weak and virtually
assure a milquetoast outcome. For instance, the review for every
country, whether Sweden or Sudan, is limited to three hours every
four years, and the review will be a country-led process in which
input from non-governmental organizations is slight.
In other words, a genocide or massive political crackdown could
occur in Burma, China, Sudan, Venezuela, or some other country, and
the Council could wait four years or more before examining
whether a country has addressed the human rights concerns raised
during the review.
Needless to say, even strong proponents of the Council are
disappointed with the results of the first two-week session of the
UPR that concluded on April 18, 2008. For instance, according to
Human Rights Watch:
The first session of the new country review mechanism of the
U.N. Human Rights Council was undermined by inconsistencies and the
timidity of some governments in reviewing others....
There was a marked contrast in the strength of criticism faced
by some countries under review, with, for instance, the Czech
Republic facing detailed questioning regarding the treatment of
Roma, while on the other hand, few states challenged Tunisia and
Algeria on their records. Other African states avoided talking
about human rights problems in those two countries, instead
congratulating both for their alleged achievements....
Algeria's interventions on Tunisia, Bahrain, and the United
Kingdom provide a good example of the double standards applied by
some. The Algerian ambassador trod softly with regard to both
Tunisia and Bahrain, noting the difficulties the Tunisian
government faced protecting human rights while combating terrorism
and asking only if Tunisia believed it would be "a good idea to
have a seminar" on that subject, while congratulating Bahrain for
the progress it has made with regard to protection of women's
rights. In contrast, Algeria gave a strong, detailed statement when
the United Kingdom was reviewed, raising concerns over its rate of
incarceration of children, the violation of the U.K.'s commitments
under the Convention Against Torture, excessive use of pre-trial
detention, and the lack of protection for asylum seekers and
In addition to such inconsistencies, the review was marked by
excessive praise and timid criticisms.... [E]fforts to find
something to commend in even the most dire situations undermined
the credibility of the process.
The record of the Council is not without some positive actions.
For instance, a number of the human rights experts reporting to the
Council make solid contributions to the purpose of the Council,
although there are notable exceptions. The Council also has
convened special sessions on Sudan and Burma.
Unfortunately, the resolutions on Sudan have been weak and
non-condemnatory; the Council has strained to avoid blaming the
government of Khartoum for its role in the genocide in Darfur.
The resolution on Burma was stronger. While the timing of the
Burma resolution leaves the impression that the resolution was a
reaction to international media coverage of Burma, rather than a
sincere fulfillment of the Council's mandate to condemn human
rights violations, the Council deserves credit for condemning the
crackdown on protestors by Burma's military junta.
The U.S. has concluded rightly, however, that these infrequent
positive actions do not outweigh the many negative aspects of the
Council. This determination has led it to forego running for a seat
on the basis that having the U.S. on the Council would make little
difference to the proceedings.
Moreover, based on evident bias and other problems, the U.S.
announced that it will withhold an amount equivalent to the U.S.
share of the Human Rights Council budget from its 2008 funding for
the United Nations. This withholding also extends to the U.S.
portion of the $6.8 million expected costs for the Durban II
preparatory process administered by the Human Rights Council.
The U.S. should not be satisfied with a flawed, biased, and
ineffective Council. Other U.N. member states have refused to act
when presented with opportunities to make the Council more
effective. Through their actions, they have demonstrated that they
do not take the Council or human rights seriously.
Considering the poor record of the Council in its first two
years and the dim prospects for improvement, the Bush
Administration was correct to refuse to lend the Council the
credibility of U.S. membership or the symbolic support of U.S.
Perhaps one day the Council will merit U.S. participation and
financial support, but the current Council does not. Until the
Council takes its responsibilities seriously--by censuring major
human rights abusers, exposing their reprehensible actions to
public scrutiny, and eschewing its disproportionate focus on
Israel--the United States should sever its ties to the Council
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay
Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret
Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.
Office of the United Nations Secretary-General,
"Secretary-General's Address to the Commission on Human Rights,"
April 7, 2005, at www.un.org/apps/sg/sgstats.asp?nid=1388 (May
1, 2008). Also see Mark P. Lagon, "The U.N. Commission on Human
Rights: Protector or Accomplice?" testimony before the Subcommittee
on Africa, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of
Representatives, April 19, 2005, at www.state.gov/p/io/rls/rm/44983.htm (May
United Nations General Assembly, "General
Assembly Establishes New Human Rights Council by Vote of 170 in
Favor to 4 Against, with 3 Abstentions," Department of Public
Information, General Assembly Document GA/10449, March 15, 2006, at
According to one news report, Bosnia and
Herzegovina decided to run only after the U.S. strongly implied to
other European countries that the U.S. would run for a Council seat
next year if Belarus did not win a seat. If true, this is a
perverse and shortsighted strategy that would undermine America's
principled position not to run for a seat until the Council proves
its merit in return for only a one-time defeat of Belarus. Maggie
Farley, "U.S. Appears Willing to Join U.N. Human Rights Panel,"
Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2007, at www.unwatch.org/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=
bdKKISNqEmG&b=1319279&ct=3869517 (May 1,
the Western European and Other States group, the choice is between
three countries considered "free" by Freedom House. The Latin
American and Caribbean States and the African States regional
groups each have just enough candidates to fill the vacant seats.
Together, these two groups offset each other in the rankings with
the Latin American and Caribbean States gaining a "free" country
and losing a "partly free" country, while the African States lose a
"free" country and gain a "partly free" country. The Eastern
European States have four "free" countries running for two seats
currently filled by "free" countries. The only potential for
shifting the net composition of the Council lies with the Asian
States, where two "free" countries, three "partly free" countries,
and one "not free" country are vying for four seats currently
filled by two "free" countries, one "partly free" country, and one
"not free" country. See United Nations General Assembly, "Election:
Human Rights Council."
U.N. Watch analysis of significant actions taken by the Council
during its first year concluded that only 13 of the Council's 47
members were net positive contributors to its human rights agenda.
U.N. Watch scored 20 "key actions" of the Human Rights Council in
its first year. The positions taken by countries on these key
actions were assigned a value: 1 point for taking a positive
position for human rights in the HRC, 0 points for taking a neutral
position, and -1 point for taking a negative position. Four free
democracies--Indonesia, Mali, Senegal, and South Africa--were among
the countries with the worst record. See U.N. Watch, "Dawn of a New
Era?" at www.unwatch.org/atf/cf/%7B6DEB65DA-BE5B-4CAE-8056-
1, 2008). pp. 5-8, 26-27,
Working Group on Situations (WGS) examines the particular
situations referred to it by the Working Group on Communications
under the 1503 Procedure. The WGS then makes recommendations to the
council on how to proceed. In these cases, it recommended that the
Council discontinue consideration of the situations in Iran and
Uzbekistan. The WGS is composed of representatives from five
countries, including Zimbabwe--despite that country's own massive
abuses that merit Council consideration. See Office of the U.N.
High Commissioner for Human Rights, "Working Group on Situations,"
at www.ohchr.org/english/issues/situations/index.htm (May
1, 2008). Also see United Nations Office at Geneva, "Human Rights
Council Concludes Fourth Session," March 30, 2007, at www.unog.ch/unog/website/news_media.nsf/(httpNewsByYea
r_en)/E6876F6D72C67C0AC12572AE004CA5C0 (May 1,
United Nations Office at Geneva, "Human
Rights Council Hears Praise and Criticism About Adopted Text on
Institution Building of Council," June 19, 2007, at www.unog.ch/unog/website/news_media.nsf/(httpNewsByYear_en
)/8F849DF300991F12C12572FF005FB375 (May 1, 2008); and
Brett D. Schaefer, "U.N. Further Weakens Human Rights Council,"
Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1707, November 20, 2007, at
For more information, see Brett D. Schaefer,
"The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Disastrous First Year
and Discouraging Signs for Reform," Heritage Foundation
Lecture No. 1042, September 5, 2007, at www.heritage.org/Research/InternationalOrganizations/hl1042.cfm;
and Sean McCormack, "Conclusion of the U.N. Human Rights Council's
Fifth Session and First Year," June 19, 2007, at www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2007/jun/86802.htm (May
For instance, Richard Falk and Jean Ziegler
have both been appointed by the Human Rights Council as experts,
despite long histories of anti-American and anti-Israeli bias. See
Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., "The Second Time as Farce: Meet the U.N.'s
New Human Rights Council," Weekly Standard, April 23, 2008,
/000/000/015/018nqpas.asp (May 1, 2008).
United Nations Human Rights Council,
"Decision 2/115: Darfur," November 28, 2006, at http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/E/HRC
/decisions/A-HRC-DEC-2-115.doc (May 1, 2008); and
United Nations Human Rights Council, "Decision S-4/101: Situation
of Human Rights in Darfur," December 13, 2006, at www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrCounci
l/specialsession/4/docs/Dec_S_4_101_en.doc (May 1,
Some have suggested that the U.S. could
improve the Council if it were a member. This is unlikely. Winning
a seat on the Council would not necessarily give the U.S. greater
voice or influence. Any U.N. member state can comment on and speak
to issues before the Council, and the U.S. has frequently expressed
its support of or opposition to various resolutions and decisions.
Because membership is based on geographic representation, even if
the U.S. won a seat on the Council, it would simply displace one of
the seven countries representing the Western Europe and Other
States region, which already vote largely as the U.S. would vote.
In numerous votes over the past year, the Council has adopted
resolutions over the objection of 11 or 12 Western nations. U.S.
membership on the Council would not change this situation. Indeed,
over the past year, Canada has filled the traditional U.S. role of
raising controversial resolutions and demanding votes. Canada's
admirable actions have not been successful. On the contrary, they
have resulted in retaliation. There is no reason to expect that the
U.S. would be treated differently than Canada by the human rights
abusers that have successfully used the Council to undermine human
rights. For more information, see Brett D. Schaefer, "The United
Nations Human Rights Council: A Disastrous First Year and
Discouraging Signs for Reform," Heritage Foundation Lecture
No. 1042, September 5, 2007, at www.heritage.org/Research/InternationalOrganizations/hl1042.cfm.
Brett D. Schaefer, "Durban II."