Democracies That Side With Repressive Regimes at U.N. Human Rights Council Pose Challenge for U.S.

By Patrick Goodenough | September 17, 2009 | 7:25 AM EDT

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice is congratulated after the U.S. won a seat on the Human Rights Council for the first time, in New York on May 12, 2009. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

( – If the United States is to have an impact on the workings of the U.N. Human Rights Council -- which it finally joined this week -- its diplomatic efforts will have to target a small group of non-Western democracies that consistently have sided with repressive regimes.
HRC members such as South Africa, Indonesia, India and Senegal, although themselves generally regarded as upholding human rights at home, frequently back rights-abusing countries, critics say.
Scorecards kept by non-governmental organizations monitoring the U.N.’s primary rights agency also show that some electoral democracies – including Japan, South Korea and Brazil – have at times abstained from voting on resolutions that have broadly divided the council between Western-oriented members and autocratic ones.
In recent HRC sessions, abstentions by such countries have facilitated the passage of some highly controversial measures, including:
-- a resolution pushed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) prohibiting “defamation” of religion;
-- a resolution on Sri Lanka that did not only not criticize the government over a humanitarian crisis sparked by the civil war there, but on the contrary praised it for its efforts to address the needs of civilians displaced by the fighting;
-- a resolution to change the mandate of a special investigator on freedom of expression, requiring him now also to report on cases “in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination” – another part of the OIC’s campaign against the “defamation” of Islam.
Even a successful resolution extending the mandate of a special investigator on North Korea and expressing concern for ongoing and systematic rights violations by Pyongyang did not draw universal support from non-Western democracies.
In a new assessment of the HRC, the democracy watchdog Freedom House recalls that in the vote on the North Korea resolution last March, “Indonesia joined such rights-abusing countries as China, Cuba, Egypt, and Russia in voting against the resolution. Brazil, India, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Senegal, and South Africa all abstained on the vote.”
Freedom House awarded a failing grade for the role played by democracies in ensuring that the HRC lives up to its mandate.
Autocrats investing energy and resources at HRC
Each year the veteran Washington-based organization scores countries on political rights and civil liberties, and then rates them as “free,” “partly free” or “not free.”
The current makeup of the 47-member HRC is 23 “free” (49 percent), 16 “partly free” (34 percent) and eight “not free” countries (17 percent) – China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Egypt, Qatar, Angola and Cameroon.
Although “free” countries fall just short of a majority, that is often not reflected in voting records – because “free” nations like South Africa, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Japan and South Korea often either side with “not free” ones, or abstain.
And those “partly free” members that are electoral democracies but fall short of Freedom House criteria for “free” status, also generally vote with repressive regimes or abstain. They include Bolivia, Nicaragua and Senegal.
The main finding in the Freedom House report card was the fact that “a small but active group of countries with very poor human rights records have so far succeeded in limiting the ability of the Council to protect human rights, despite their minority status on that body.”
“These authoritarian states invest tremendous energy and resources in the Council and exert strong political pressure on other countries in their regions or spheres of influence,” it says.
Freedom House attributes the willingness of “free” countries like South Africa and Indonesia to back autocratic governments to factors including the desire to demonstrate “solidarity” with developing or “Global South” countries, and “pragmatic considerations, such as a fear of negative political or economic consequences for breaking ranks.”
When South Africa was criticized earlier for its voting patterns at the HRC, the foreign ministry in Pretoria said in response that South Africa was concerned about social and economic rights, and not just civil and political ones.
In Indonesia’s case, its voting patterns in part reflect its membership of the OIC. A total of 15 of the council’s current members are in the Islamic bloc – Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Indonesia, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal and Saudi Arabia.
An earlier scorecard by another NGO, the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, rated “free” Indonesia and South Africa even lower than “not free” Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on the basis of their votes in 32 key council decisions in 2007-8.
At the very bottom of the U.N. Watch list was China while Canada received the top score.

Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer addresses the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 14, 2009, the day the U.S. took its seat on the body for the first time. (U.N. Photo by Gilles Sereni)

‘Diplomatic heavy lifting’
The Obama administration’s decision to become a member of the HRC was a reversal of the stance of its predecessor, which largely shunned the body.
Council membership is divided into regional groups – Western nations get only seven seats, while Africa and Asia together enjoy a built-in majority of 26.
Because of the membership structure, critics of the administration’s decision to join pointed out that becoming a member did nothing to change the political complexion of the body.
Freedom House, while critical of the council’s performance, is not among those arguing that the U.S. should have stayed away.
Its report, authored by advocacy director Paula Schriefer, said that the presence of the U.S. was less important for its vote than for the resources it could wield in tabling important resolutions and amendments and getting support for them from non-Western member states.
The report also cited the HRC’s scheduled review in 2011. Coming five years after its launch in 2006, the review will provide an opportunity for countries to push for improvements to the body.
“The United States stands a much greater chance of exerting a positive influence on this review if it is seen as an active player and has done the diplomatic heavy lifting to secure alliances among other U.N. states,” Freedom House argued.
At the opening of the current HRC session in Geneva on Monday, the head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer, said the U.S. would be an active and constructive participant in the body’s deliberations.
She also pledged that the U.S. would “not look the other way in the face of serious human rights abuses.”
“The truth must be told, the facts brought to light and the consequences faced,” Brimmer continued. “While we will aim for common ground, we will call things as we see them and we will stand our ground when truth is at stake.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow