Authoritarian regimes thrive in the UN Human Rights Council 10

imagesAt 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)

China 6.5

Cuba 6.5

Saudi Arabia 6.5

Cameroon 6.0

Angola 5.5
Egypt 5.5

Qatar 5.5

Russia 5.5

Partly free (3-5)

Djibouti 5.0
Gabon 5.0

Jordan 5.0

Bahrain 5.0

Nigeria 4.5

Pakistan 4.5

Kyrgyzstan 4.5

Bangladesh 4.0

Malaysia 4.0

Burkina Fasso 4.0
Madagascar 3.5

Nicaragua 3.5

Philippines 3.5
Bosnia Herzegovina 3.5
Bolivia 3.0

Senegal 3.0
Zambia 3.0Free (1-2.5)

India 2.5
Indonesia 2.5
Ukraine 2.5

Mexic 2.5

Mauritius 2.0
South Africa 2.0

Argentina 2.0

Japan 1.5
South Korea 1.5
Slovakia 1
Slovenia 1
Ghana 1.5
Brazil 2.0
Italy 1.5

Chile 1
Uruguay 1
US 1
France 1
Germany 1
Netherlands 1
Swizerland 1

UK 1


  1. UNHRC este mult prea indulgent fata de realitatile din Cuba, intr-adevar. in orice caz, ar fi interesant de verificat trendul unora dintre aceste state clasificate de FH, pentru a vedea, pe o perioada medie sau lunga, daca s-au indepartat sau s-au apropriat de idealul democratic.

    • Da, ar fi interesant de vazut trendul tarilor „partly free” de la un mandat la altul, mai ales ca aceasta categorie va fi foarte bine reprezentata si in viitor, din cauza metodei de alocare a locurilor in consiliu in functie de regiuni. Africa si Asia au cele mai multe locuri, cate 13 fiecare, exact acolo unde democratia sta cel mai prost. America latina are 8, Europa de Est are 7 (aici figureaza si Rusia), iar Europa de Vest, America, Canada, Australia, Noua Zeelanda sunt grupate impreuna, in mod f ciudat, si nu au decat 7 voturi.

      Cuba – prea multa indulgenta, exact. Acum cateva luni a fost invitata sa reintre in OAS, desi in inchisorile ei se afla jurnalisti inchisi de zeci de ani. In acelasi timp, Fidel a fost onorat drept „Erou Mondial al Solidaritatii” acum cateva zile. De catre ONU.

  2. Je pense que les rapports des commissions sur les droits de l homme (UNHCR,ECFR) sont trop theoriques . et quelquefois complaisantes en ce qui concerne l”Afrique.
    En effet ,le probleme de democratie,droits de l”homme,liberte d’expression sont un reel probleme pour tous les pays Africains.Classer des pays comme le Gabon,le Burkina-faso …de partiellement libre est une gageure si l’on tient compte du contexte politique de ces pays.Malheureusement nombreux sont les pays Africains dont les chefs d,Etat sont trop jaloux de leurs pouvoirs et ne sont pas prets a encourager une plus grande ouverture en ce qui concerne le deceloppement bes libertes.

    • La question de la complaisance des démocraties envers des pays non démocratiques est précisément le cœur du problème de l’UNHRC (et de l’ONU pas moins). Les deux commentaires précédents touchent la question quasiment similaire de l’indulgence à l’égard de la „démocratie” cubanaise, qui fait pourtant emprisonner des étudiants et journalistes.

      Concernant la situation de Gabon et Burkina Faso, tu peux consulter le rapport Freedom in the World, qui présente chaque année un bilan des libertés civiles et des droits politiques et offre aussi une analyse des principaux événements politiques, crises ou abus du régime. En fait, Burkina Faso a une situation assez bonne si on fait la moyenne des deux scores, mais enregistre un 5 pour l’état des libertés politiques, ce qui rapproche ce pays du bloc „non libre”.

      Ce que j’ai essayé de faire en utilisant le FH Index a été de montrer justement cette tendance des pays quasi libres vers le bloc des pays „non libres”. Le UNHRC a des critères extrêmement démocratiques si on considère la condition d’entrée au Conseil (quota régionale – 13 pays pour l’Afrique, 13 – Asie, 8 – Amérique Latine, 9 – Europe de l’Est et 7 – l’Europe de l’Ouest + les Etats-Unis, le Canada, la Nouvelle Zélande et l’Australie), ce qui fait malheureusement que la plupart des pays membres soient des régimes non démocratiques et peu soucieux d’améliorer leurs performances démocratiques. Au contraire, le quota régional donne un pouvoir démesuré aux leaders régionaux, qui décident d’avance les pays qui vont devenir membres de l’UNHRC et, une fois devenus membres, ces pays non démocratiques sont encouragés à voter en bloc sur des questions concernant les droits de l’homme. Ainsi, le UNHRC est tout à fait paralysé, ayant d’un côté le bloc démocratique occidental en minorité et, d’autre part, le bloc non démocratique, « souverainiste » (la forme politically correct pour nier la légitimité des organismes internationaux pour intervenir dans des cas de violations des droits de l’homme. L’échec de la nouvelle doctrine de la « responsabilité de protéger » est déjà évident, si on regarde la situation en Darfour par exemple).

      Cette forme de political correctness qui a imposé le critère du quota-régional pour l’accès au Conseil ne promet rien d’autre qu’une paralysie à long terme de cet organisme et met un cause (pour la nième fois…) la légitimité de l’ONU. C’est pas pour rien que les Etats-Unis ont réfusé d’y siéger depuis 2006. L’administration Obama a changé d’avis cette année et on va voir ce que cela va apporter.

  3. From the Democracy Index above it already shows up errors . SIngapore which is a well known Authoritarian regime is not listed , and should be put on the list of NOT FREE , and also Malaysia should be on the NOT FREE but is listed on the partly free . This is observed because I live in both countries , obviously these charts and studies are incorrect .
    When I see countries like Malaysia on UNCHR commisions , it shows the failure within the UN , Malaysia is a RACIST society , if you don’t beleive it , go there and see how its run.
    I am sorry , like a lot of institutions , government or otherwise , the UN is NOT doing their its job correctly ,honestly or efficiently , and is very far from transparent

    • Pg,

      Singapore is not listed in the above Index because this country is not a representative of the Asian States in the UNHRC for the June 2009-June 2010 mandate, and neither is Malaysia. However, I did a little research on these two countries on and found out that Singapore is indeed considered a „partly free” country with a 5 for Political Rights and a 4 for Civil Liberties. Malaysia has a better score, with a double 4, but both country reports mention racial tensions and discrimination, so I think you are right.
      They shouldn’t be allowed to become members of the UNHRC in these conditions and issue all sorts of crazy statements such as that already mentioned, declaring Cuba a model of democracy (and an innovating one for that matter). As already stated in my article, the member states of the UNHRC are ordered in such a manner in my table, so that you can easily observe how many of the „partly free” countries are actually very close to the „not free” camp. Djibouti, Gabon, Jordan, Bahrain are really not that different from Russia, Egypt or Qatar.
      Unfortunately for us all (who still hope that one day we will have a institution with enough democratic credentials and political will to enforce its condemnation of authoritarian regimes), the UNHRC is built as an organization striving to represent as „politically correct” as possible the South, which obviously produced this inflation of nondemocratic regimes, armed with the UN legitimacy. I already mentioned this in a comment above: Asia and Africa have the largest number of mandates in the Council, whereas Europe, US and Canada are conflated in one category and they form only a (losing) minority of the assembly, and this situation is expected to last in the foreseeable future. Add to this the reluctance of the US to participate to such a show until very recently and you will have the exact measure of the UNHRC’s soft power in furthering democracy in the world…
      This effort for a so called equitable (democratic?) representation of all regions was done at the expense of democracy and this is detrimental precisely for those poor and undeveloped countries in Asia or Africa. The civil society, the opposition and the human rights are all ignored in these regions, and instead their authoritarian leaders and governments are brought together to whitewash guys like Mugabe so that the entire world know that human rights mean nothing if the majority decides so. And there is unfortunately such a majority in the UNHRC.

      In conclusion, I think the UN should be more honest and acknowledge the fact that UNHRC’s main mission is not the protection of „human rights”, but an equitable representation of all world’s nations at the UNs table, irrespective of their democratic credentials. I don’t think this would hurt UN’s prestige any more than the present situation does.

  4. I agree with Andreea , and the UN should be more honest .
    Also I find a lot of organisations like the UN far from transparent in their operation and objectives .

  5. There are a few things I would like to bring to peoples attention , is the Malaysian constitution , it is simply racist , giving privileges to the majority Malay , and not to others such as he Chinese and Indian .
    Also both Malaysia and Singapore ISA’s have been in use since independance , and are used primarily for political means to stay in power .
    Look at ASEAN countries , there is not one real democracy ( the nearest is Thailand) , and countries are run by what are effectivley family affairs and groups.

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