The Human Rights Council’s Performance in 2006

by Elizabeth Cassidy

Thanks, Peggy, for the welcome. UN Watch is glad to have the opportunity to participate in the always interesting discussions at Opinio Juris, and we will be posting updates on the Council over the next three weeks. But first, I’d like to provide some background on the Council and its performance in its three regular sessions and four special sessions to date.

As many of you will know from the media coverage, including the New York Times story that Julian posted earlier, the new Council has disappointed human rights advocates. Its members are supposed to be elected based on their human rights records and commitments, yet the first Council still includes some persistent violators, including four of Freedom House’s “Worst of the Worst” human rights abusing regimes. It is supposed to objectively and non-selectively promote and protect human rights worldwide, yet it has cited only one country in the entire world for human rights violations: Israel, and not just once, but eight times. It also seems to be moving in the direction of eroding the UN’s independent human rights mechanisms, not strengthening them.

Julian raised the question of whether the Council’s failings are the result not of political machinations by the “bad” countries, but of a lack of international consensus on the universality of human rights norms. From here in Geneva, it looks like a combination of both—and the Council’s structure and dynamics have allowed the “bad” countries to use the lack of consensus to their political advantage.

The Council’s founding resolution says its members should be chosen based on their human rights credentials, but it also imposes a significant structural constraint: The body’s 47 seats are divided by a set formula among the UN’s five regional groups, with 13 for the African Group, 13 for the Asian Group, 6 for the Eastern European Group, 8 for the Latin American and Caribbean Group, and 7 for the Western European and Others Group (“WEOG”). Regional allotment was also the practice in the Commission, but a re-distribution of seats reduced the representation of WEOG, which includes proportionally more democracies, and increased the representation of other groups and alliances.

As a result, only 25 of the 47 Council members, a slight majority of 53%, are Free democracies under Freedom House’s standards. Nine of its members, or 19%, are Not Free countries according to Freedom House: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. Four of these nine—China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, all of whom are among the Council’s most vocal and active members—rank among Freedom House’s “Worst of the Worst.” All four received well over the 96-vote threshold in the General Assembly that was supposed to prevent violators from winning membership.

The Non-Aligned Movement (“NAM”), a political alliance of developing countries that includes many repressive regimes and is currently led by Cuba, holds 57.5% of the Council seats. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (“OIC”), an alliance of Muslim countries led in the Council by Pakistan, holds 36%, or 17 seats. This is significant because one-third of the Council, or 16 members, can convene special sessions—which the OIC did three times in the Council’s first five months, all to examine Israel. OIC countries also dominate, and as a result chair, both the African and Asian Groups that together make up the Council’s majority. In all three respects—percentage of total membership, percentage of the African Group, and percentage of the Asian Group—the OIC wields more power in the Council than it does in the UN General Assembly. And thus far, the OIC has used its strength in the Council to obtain repeated condemnations of Israel while blocking accountability for Sudan or examination of anyone else.

Moreover, although they do have a slight numerical majority, the Council’s Free democracies are split. An informal “democratic alliance” of Canada, the 10 European democracies, and sometimes Japan and South Korea, generally have voted together to support positive initiatives and oppose counterproductive measures. The Council’s other Asian and its African and Latin American democracies, however, usually have sided with the non-democracies out of regional group and other bloc solidarity.

As a result, in 2006 the OIC pushed through eight resolutions condemning Israel for human rights violations without addressing other parties’ violations. The democratic alliance did press for Council action, including a special session, on the situation in Darfur—but to gain the support of the Islamic, African and Asian groups, the democracies had to settle for two soft resolutions that not only do not condemn Khartoum for violations, they actually commend it for its “cooperation.” (In the second resolution, the Council did create a team to visit and assess the situation in Darfur, but Sudan has now reneged on its agreement to admit the monitors.) The Council has not yet dealt with any other human rights situations in specific countries.

Although the old Commission used to pass multiple resolutions against Israel each year, it also usually adopted resolutions addressing four or five of the world’s worst abuser countries. The U.S., or sometimes EU members, typically initiated these actions, but the U.S. is not a Council member and, aside from the Darfur situation, the EU has been unwilling to bring country-specific resolutions in the Council’s first year. The EU says that this is a necessary trade-off to win the other groups’ support in creating the Council’s mechanisms, such as the universal periodic review—but it also was often reticent to pursue politically sensitive matters at the Commission.

These dynamics appear likely to continue at the current session. The U.S. wants the Council to focus on Burma, but the EU is reluctant to expend energy on a controversial resolution while negotiating the institutional reforms. The EU also reportedly is not keen to pursue a text on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka that it had proposed at a prior session but then postponed. Meanwhile, the OIC is readying four more resolutions against Israel. If passed, as they almost certainly will be, this will bring the total number of Council resolutions against Israel to 12.

One Response

  1. The first right of all human rights is the right to live. Yet in China, 1.7 million girls go “missing” each year. Hundreds of thousands of them are killed outright or are victims of abandonment and fatal neglect both by their families and by the state.

    On March 5th, 2007, I presented this issue at the UN Conference on the Status of Women. Gendercide–the singling out of baby girls for death–should be on the agenda of every human rights group.

    Imagine a family leaving a newborn–or a 3 year old–out in the street, in the field or by a river to die! Imagine a state-run rat-infested institution in which babies are fed diluted rice water and have no heat or medical care and you begin to grasp the horror.

    The subject comes out in the media in context of the over 40 million bachelors currently unable to find brides. But the other side of it–infanticide, abandonment and fatal neglect–are rarely mentioned. They are confirmed in the just-released U.S. State Department report.

    What is also missing from the radar screen is that the vacuum in marriageable women increases sex crimes in the form of rape, kidnapping, trafficking and sexual slavery in the guise of marriage.

    You can educate yourself more by reading the material on my website at (and by reading my book). The upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing provides us the opportunity to pressure the government of the People’s Republic of China.

    Talia Carner

    Author, CHINA DOLL

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