Analysis: Is the UNHRC an 'old boys club' of dictators?

According to Freedom House, which compiles an annual list of "not free” countries in the world and ranks them, twenty-five percent of the world’s countries were considered “not free” in 2018.

June 20, 2018 17:37
4 minute read.
Analysis: Is the UNHRC an 'old boys club' of dictators?

Overview of the Human Rights Council one day after the U.S. announced their withdraw at the United Nations in Geneva,. (photo credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS)


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“Human rights abusers continue to serve on, and be elected to, the [United Nations Human Rights] council,” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on Tuesday, announcing the US would withdraw from the organization. Washington and Jerusalem have accused the council of ignoring the most abusive regimes while focusing on Israel over the years. Critics accuse it of being run by dictatorships who damage the cause of human rights and scheme to be elected so that they can operate with impunity, like criminals running the police force.

A study conducted by The Jerusalem Post shows that the image of the UNHRC being dominated by the most abusive regimes is partly accurate, but not the whole story. Around a quarter of the countries serving on the UNHRC have been dictatorships since it was formed in 2006.

According to Freedom House, which compiles an annual list of “not free” countries in the world and ranks them, twenty-five percent of the world’s countries were considered “not free” in 2018. This is roughly the same number as in 2007 when 45 or 23% of the world’s states were “not free.” The council reflects the way the world looks.

The UNHRC elects its 47 member countries by region and each region is represented roughly proportionately, such that there are 13 states from Africa, 13 states from Asia and eight from Latin America and so forth. The regional breakdowns mean that the Africa and Asia groups tend to be dominated by more totalitarian regimes, whereas the Western Europe group, which includes the US, Canada and Australia, is almost purely democratic.

Because the elections to the council are partly a popularity contest, the most powerful and influential states tend to be elected. This explains why China, which is not a democracy, has been elected every year since 2007.

Japan, a democracy, has also been elected to serve numerous times. Russia, which dominates the Eastern Europe group, has served for nine out of the last eleven years on the council, as has the UK.

The most ruthless dictatorships, such as North Korea, have not gained access to the council, but many other dictatorships have. This includes almost every Gulf monarchy, such as Qatar which has served since 2008 and Kuwait (2011-2014), Bahrain (2007-2011), UAE (2012-2018) and Saudi Arabia (2007-2018). These tiny states with big budgets have exercised a disproportionate influence considering that many other Asian states have never served.

In the Latin America and Caribbean region, despite the presence of numerous democracies in the Caribbean, Cuba has served every year since 2007 and Venezuela was elected to the council in 2012. This illustrates Haley’s point.

Why do these two countries, which are considered among the worst human rights abusers in the western hemisphere, and the only two “not free” countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to Freedom House, have such a prominent presence? The only conceivable reason is that they work within their region to be elected time and again in order to protect themselves from criticism. In Africa, numerous countries with an authoritarian record have won seats, including Gabon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Mauritania, Burundi and the Congo. Why was Libya, one of the worst abusers, elected in 2010, and not Malawi, Namibia or other countries with a better track record? Tunisia, a democracy since 2011, should have been on the council more, rather than Gabon and Angola, two problematic states.

Overall our finding was that the council is not disproportionately controlled by dictatorships, it mostly represents the increasingly totalitarian state of the world. In fact, out of the 106 states that have served since 2007, 46 states considered “free” by Freedom House have served on the council.

UNHRC council members with Freedom House rankings (Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)

More democracies have served, but they do not serve for as long because their regions tend to rotate them more, whereas the same dictatorships cling to their seats through deals and lobbying. But that doesn’t mean they dominate.

Dictatorships have held seats 28% of the time on the council, ranging from 10 to 14 out of the 47 seats annually. The last five years have been the worst in the council’s history in this respect, with more dictatorships serving, and Haley is correct that it is not getting better. This is a structural problem of the UN’s regional system and the fact there is no check and balance to a country’s human rights record preventing it from being on the council.

However, if the council were reserved only for countries with the best rights records it would largely be a European club and be open to criticism of discriminating against the global south.

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