Human-Rights Redux
The Human Rights Council follows in the footsteps of the discredited Human Rights Commission.


Brett D. Schaefer

Appalled by the ineffectiveness of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which had been used by human-rights abusers to shield themselves from scrutiny or sanction, the United States last year led an effort to replace the discredited Commission with a new Human Rights Council (HRC). Sadly, negotiations in the United Nations over the new HRC resulted in a disappointing body that failed to adopt any meaningful criteria for membership and left the body vulnerable to the same manipulation by human-rights abusers that plague the old Commission.

Despite the evident weaknesses, America stood virtually alone in voting against the U.N. resolution creating the HRC. 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 the decision to run in the future would be based on the performance of the HRC in the upcoming year. Following the decision not to run, Secretary Condoleezza Rice announced,

The United States believes that the United Nations and its Member States have a critical role to play in advancing these rights, freedoms, and institutions. The United States will work cooperatively with other Member States to make the new UN Human Rights Council strong and effective. In particular, we must work to ensure that countries elected to the Council uphold the highest standards of human rights.


The agreement in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights was seen as a historic opportunity to reform the United Nations’ premier human-rights body and make it a strong advocate for human rights. Subsequent negotiations in the General Assembly seriously weakened reform proposals and resulted in modest changes rather than fundamental reform. Instead of adopting strong criteria to prevent human-rights abusers from gaining seats on the new council, the resolution merely requires member states to “take into account” a candidate’s human-rights record when they vote. Worse, the resolution set the bar for suspending an elected HRC member at two-thirds of the General Assembly, which is higher than the simple majority necessary to win a seat.

The new council’s lack of membership criteria rendered it open to infiltration and manipulation by the world’s worst human-rights abusers and led the U.S. to vote against the HRC in the General Assembly. As noted by Ambassador John Bolton, “[A]bsent stronger mechanisms for maintaining credible membership, the United States could not join consensus on this resolution. 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 only be Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau in voting against the weakened council. 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 membership on the HRC and 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 would consider running in 2007 if the council proved effective.

As it stood leading into the May 9 election, only half of the candidates for seats are considered “free” by Freedom House. Nearly 20 percent of the 66 candidates for a seat on the council were considered “not free” by Freedom House, including notable human-rights abusers Algeria, Cuba, China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. Several of these countries are listed by Freedom House in “The Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies 2005.” While it is true that countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe chose not to run for election, nothing prevents these countries from running in the future. All candidates have made pledges of their commitment to human rights that, in many cases, fly in the face of their track record. For instance:

·    The Chinese government has 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 enjoyment of all 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.”

·    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…”

·    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.”

In spite of the best effort of the Bush administration and other states that fulfilled their pledge to vote against human-rights abusers seeking seats on the HRC, the May 9 elections have made clear that the HRC is not fundamentally different from the Commission. Only about half of the countries elected to the new Human Rights Council are considered “free” according to Freedom House. Slightly less than a fifth of the 47 new members of the council are considered “not free.” Among these were, in fact, Algeria, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Although the representation of abusers on the council is less than the membership of the most recent Commission, the successful election of these states again places abusers in a position to hamstring the council as they did the commission.

The election for membership on the new Human Rights Council has validated U.S. concerns. When the dust cleared after the elections, it was clear that the new Human Rights Council did not engender the General Assembly to spurn the candidacies of human-rights abusers.

Many of the same countries that were key actors in undermining the defunct Commission on Human Rights are now on the council.  Thus, it is all but certain that they will seek to dilute the Human Rights Council and divert 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 seek to use its influence to ensure that this does not occur.


As noted by Ambassador John Bolton,

We remain committed to support the UN’s historic mission to promote and protect the basic human rights of all the world’s citizens. 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 to the new Human Rights Council clearly demonstrates that the HRC has failed its first test. The question remains, however, whether these countries will dominate the new Human Rights Council. The ease with which these countries were elected demonstrates that the 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 to undergo examination of their human-rights records. The quality of these reviews will be a useful tool to measure the dedication, effectiveness, and willingness of the HRC to confront human-rights abuses and resist the influence of those most determined to undermine the council.  Only if the HCR conducts strong, condemnatory reviews of these well known abusers should the U.S. consider running for a seat in the future.

To increase the probability of an effective body and to prevent U.S. taxpayer funds from supporting an ineffective council, Congress should tie future funding for the HRC to its effectiveness. Although the Bush administration has promised to fund the HRC during the current year, Congress should bear the performance of the council in mind when considering appropriations for the United Nations in the upcoming 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, including long-standing abuses in China, Cuba, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Otherwise, it would be better it the U.S. had nothing to do with this farce.

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.