At the beginning of this month, two very troubling reports on the state of democracy in the world have been released almost simultaneously, and both are concerned with the highest locus of legitimacy and authority when dealing with democracy and human rights, the UN and, most specifically, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the successor of the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) since 2006. The first research is Freedom House’s annual report on the activity of UNHRC and the second was released by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). This article will present the conclusions of these two reports, briefly corroborating their results with the most recent Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report (2008) scores on political rights and civil liberties (a scale from 1 to 7, 1 for the highest degree of freedom, and 7 for the lowest level).
The first analysis is the Freedom House UNHRC Report, an annual report that evaluates the activity of this inter-governmental body of the UN and its official reactions to various cases of human rights violations in the world. The research uses 5 benchmarks totaling 11 criteria in order to asses the efficiency of the UNHRC in light of its declared goals, and concludes with a very grim evaluation:
A failing grade in 4 of the 11 criteria: Adoption of resolutions and use of special sessions; the global threat against freedom of expression; voting records of democracies during Council elections; voting records of democracies on key resolutions.
A mixed grade in 6 other criteria: Relevance and independence of special rapporteurs; Universal Periodic Review process; the global threat against freedom of association; accreditation process for NGOs; mixed opportunities for NGO engagement at the Council; level of U.S. engagement at the Human Rights Council.
A pass grade in one of the 11 criteria: Quality of special rapporteurs and reports.
Additionally, the Report highlights a significant number of other vulnerabilities of this body, which could affect its ability to further assess human rights violations and take appropriate measures. One of these vulnerabilities is the continuous pressure some countries exercise in order to eliminate the country-specific rapporteurs, that is the assessment made by an independent team on the ground in specific countries, favoring instead the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process by which the monitoring is realized by member states working together with the state under scrutiny, every four years. Moreover, these reports allow a very large space to maneuver for the regime under scrutiny to manipulate the process of investigation.
Another pressing case is the meager capacity of this intergovernmental body to issue condemnatory resolutions on those countries that are involved in grave violations of human rights. Belarus, China, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Laos, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe, Chad, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, have been exempted of such resolutions, whereas Israel received a disproportionate number of condemnations on the same charge.
The freedom of expression received a significant blow from some members that push for the passing of resolutions against “abuses of freedom of expression” on race or religion. Most of these propositions are furthered so as to prohibit “anti-Islamic or blasphemous speech”, Pakistan, as a delegate of the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) countries being the sternest advocate of such a resolution.
The 47 seats of this body are distributed proportionally along the five regional groups of states designated by the UN, and the seats are most often decided inside each group, instead of allowing free competition for the seats.
The accreditation of the NGOs is in the hands of a politicized committee made of the member states representatives, thus making the official approval of NGOs an arbitrary decision of national governments, sometimes ranked as non free (the case of Russia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon etc.) or partly free by the very reliable FH Freedom in the World Index.
The ECFR report covers the activity of the UNHRC during the 2008-2009 session and focuses mainly on the relative weight of the EU inside the UN body and its ability to forge a stable majority in the decision-making process reflecting the liberal-democratic values of EU countries. The key variable this research uses is the “voting coincidence”, measuring the degree to which the members of this UN’s body vote congruently with EU states in matters relating to human rights. The report shows that the voting coincidence dropped from 75% during 1998-1999 to 55% during 2007-2008 and to 52% last year.
The bulk of the countries that disengaged from the vote backing EUs perspective on human rights are in Africa, but a growing number of members that are either against EU’s votes or are abstaining from taking a position in cases of gross human rights violations are to be found in Latin America. Another group of countries in disagreement with EU’s views on human rights is the OIC, the main point of divergence being OIC’s desire to push through a resolution condemning “abuses of freedom of expression”. Moreover, the inability of EU states to impose their perspective on UNHRC’s agenda was emphasized by their disunity when the Periodic Review on China’s encroachments on human rights was released. ECFR’s report notes also the EU’s failure to coalesce a majority in its response to the crisis in Sri Lanka, but it does acknowledge its success in the case of Darfur, the more so since the majority of African countries backed the opposite view on the sanctions against Omar al-Bashir.
The most interesting part of the ECFR’s report deals with a list of suggestions to improve EU countries influence in the agenda of this body. The main points are as follows:
EU needs a long-term agenda, in order to act as a coherent agent and avoid polarizations induced by other actors (especially the USA). It must also consolidate the bilateral diplomacy with China and Russia and make efforts at building strategic coalitions on each crisis, and should also pay more attention at economic rights and development aids for poor countries. Thus, the main advice given by this report is to build a better strategy to regain the support EU’s values enjoyed in the 1990s, at the peak of the third and most impressive wave of democratization in the world. Both reports also greet the return of the US diplomacy in this UN body after a period of disengagement during the Bush administration, emphasizing an amelioration in the democratic stance of the UNHRC, for instance in the case of Darfur.
However, this optimism based on the belief that a better strategy of coalition-building of western states and the new Obama-era of American foreign policy must be moderated by a worrying trend in the global state of democracy, as the FH Freedom in the World Reports keep showing for some time now. The obstacle on the promotion of EU’s values is not so much a problem of coalitional mismanagement as a difficulty in finding democratically-oriented partners for dialogue. From the 47 members of the UNHRC, 22 are free countries (scores form 1 to 2.5), according to the FH Index, 17 others are partly free (scores from 3 to 5), and 8 are not free (5.5 to 7). Thus, the free countries are outnumbered by the partly free and not free members. Moreover, the last three FH Freedom in the World Reports show a decline of rights and liberties in the world and especially a worsening of these indices in the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, and in four Latin American countries (Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, and Nicaragua).
Furthermore, this decline in the state of democracy should be corroborated with a tendency of regional attraction exercised by not free countries or partly free countries with grave violations of democracy principles and human rights (Cuba, Russia, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela), cases of regional authoritarian leaders deploying a contagion effect of a non-democratic character. This authoritarian contagion (abuses against independent media, repression of opposition parties, violation of the rights of expression and association etc.) is very much visible for instance in Venezuela’s neighboring countries or the countries associated with it in ALBA (especially Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua), in the Caucasus region or in some OIC countries, as well as a democratic decline in a number of African countries with strong economic ties with China.
It should also be highlighted the fact that a significant number of the UNHRC member states have received very high scores on the two scales of political rights and civil liberties, thus making their democratic credentials very much doubtful. Indeed, the proximity of more than 50% of the partly free countries to the non free bulk of states should make one wary of any easy solution to foster more democracy at the UNHRC in the short term.
On June 10, 2009, a very confusing UNHRC press release announced the results of the Universal Periodic Review on Cameroon, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. In it, a number of countries praised the democratic quality of Cuba, and the very good state of its social, economic and political rights. Among other things, that press release said as follows: “Cuba had withstood many tests, and continued to uphold the principles of objectivity, impartiality and independence in pursuance of the realization of human rights”.
For a previous comment on this issue, see.
Bellow, a table of the UNHRC member countries, according to the FH Democracy Index 2009
|Not free (5.5-7)
Saudi Arabia 6.5
|Partly free (3-5)|
Burkina Fasso 4.0
Bosnia Herzegovina 3.5
Zambia 3.0Free (1-2.5)
South Africa 2.0
South Korea 1.5