After 6 Years of U.S. Membership, ‘Free’ Countries Still in Minority at UN Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | October 28, 2015 | 4:20am EDT

( – Six years of U.S. membership of the U.N. Human Rights Council has had little impact on the quality of the governments occupying its seats, and an annual election Wednesday to fill 18 of those seats looks unlikely to change the pattern.

Currently, fewer than half of the 47 members of the Geneva-based HRC – 22 members – are designated “free” by Freedom House, the democracy watchdog which for more than four decades has evaluated countries for political rights and civil liberties.

That has been the case every year since the Obama administration joined the council in late 2009 except for 2013, when the number of “free” members eased over the halfway mark – 24 “free” members compared to 23 designated “not free” or “partly free” by Freedom House.

With the exception of 2013, 'free' countries have been in the minority at the U.N. Human Rights Council every year since the U.S. joined in late 2009. (Graph:

Among countries standing for new three-year terms in Wednesday’s election are Ethiopia and Burundi, both “not free,” and Togo, which is “partly free.”  All three are assured of success because their regional group has submitted a “closed slate” for the five available Africa seats – that is, the same number of candidates as there are vacancies.

In other regional groups, countries with a good chance of winning seats include the United Arab Emirates and Laos (both “not free”); and Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ecuador and Venezuela (all “partly free.”)

The vote, by the full U.N. General Assembly in New York, is held by secret ballot.

On Tuesday three human rights groups – U.N. Watch, Human Rights Foundation and the Lantos Foundation – released a report evaluating all the candidacies in Wednesday’s election.

Examining countries’ records on human rights, including press freedom, as well as their voting records on human rights-related measures at the U.N., the report concluded that nine candidates (Venezuela, Pakistan, UAE, Burundi, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Laos and Togo) were not qualified to be HRC members and another three (Cote d’Ivoire, Philippines and Kenya) were questionable.

“The expected election of rights abusing regimes would deal a severe blow to the credibility and efficacy of a body that was supposed to improve on its discredited predecessor,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch.

“Sadly, the likely election of oppressive regimes – three out of the five regional groups are running uncontested slates – will only send the message that politics trumps human rights, and will let down millions of victims worldwide who look to the world body for protection.”

Venezuela, a current HRC member is standing for re-election. A group of 36 international and Latin American human rights groups said this week said its record should preclude it from serving another term.

They highlighted a record of rights violations at home, but also Venezuela’s voting record at the HRC, where it voted against resolutions critical of countries like Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Low bar for membership

At the end of this year the U.S. will end its membership of the HRC after two consecutive terms, and under the regulations may not stand again for a minimum of a year.

The Obama administration embraced the council with enthusiasm in 2009, reversing its predecessor’s policy of shunning it and vowing to improve it from within.

The Bush administration’s low opinion of the HRC was partly due to its lack of enforceable criteria for membership.

When the draft resolution establishing the HRC was being negotiated in 2006, a U.S. proposal that any country liable to U.N. sanctions for rights abuses should be disqualified was unsuccessful, as was another proposal calling for a candidate to secure the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly

The final resolution required a simple majority vote, and while it referred to an expectation that members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” no definition or measure was established.

Another major flaw, in the eyes of human rights advocates, is the council’s adherence to the U.N. custom of “equitable geographical distribution” – 13 seats are allocated to Asia, 13 to Africa, eight to Latin America, seven to the Western group, and six to Eastern Europe.

Therefore countries in Asia and Africa together have an automatic majority (26 seats out of 47), yet the two regions also account for the largest proportion of “not free” and “partly free” countries.

As a result of those inbuilt weaknesses, some of the world’s most authoritarian regimes have since then been elected onto the HRC, including China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Libya under Muammar Gaddafi.

Non-democracies, frequently acting as a bloc, are often able to push agenda items and mandates they favor, and also to block those that they oppose. Neuer of U.N. Watch points out that rights abuses by countries such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe have never been addressed in any U.N. resolution.

The U.S. and other democracies have had mixed results in previous attempts to foil HRC candidacies of some of the most egregious rights violators.

Attempts by Sudan (2012), Syria (2011) and Iran (2010) all fizzled out after pressure was brought to bear on their regional groups. (In Iran’s case, the Asia group offered instead an unimpeded path to a seat on another U.N. rights body, the Commission on the Status of Women – a trade-off which the U.S. and other democracies went along with despite opposition from Iranian women’s rights advocates.)

But in most cases, candidacies of “not free” countries have sailed through without a hitch. This year, 12 countries in that category are members: Algeria, China, Congo, Cuba, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

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