Academia mirrors UN Watch on effectiveness of UN Human Rights Council

UN Watch regularly comments on how the Human Rights Council (HRC) fails to stand up to its founding principles and protect victims around the world. We often criticize the overwhelming power and influence that non-democracies hold in relation to democracies. Academics from around the world who research the HRC share the same conclusions. Their disenchantment is justified by empirical and qualitative research on a variety of themes. Some of these noteworthy articles are listed below:

The author discusses how notorious human rights violators are elected to the UNHRC in order not only to discourage international and domestic criticism, but to reward their allies with favorable trade and aid agreements. Through a series of regression analysis models measuring economic factors (trade and aid from China to Africa) and political factors (leadership failures rates of non-democratic states that are elected to the UNHRC) he concludes that that non-democratic leaders are exploiting membership on the Human Rights Council for domestic political gain. This happens because non-democratic states enjoy an increase in trade flows with China when they gain membership to the Human Rights Council, non-democracies in Africa are more likely to receive foreign aid from China when they gain council membership and non-democratic leaders enjoy a lower risk of office removal during periods when they are members of the Human Rights Council. Thus, not only are non-democratic governments using the Human Rights Council to hinder international human rights, but non-democratic leaders are also using membership on the UN Human Rights Council as an opportunity to strengthen their hold on power and undermine the emergence of democracy within their own countries.

  • Freedman, Rosa, “The United Nations Human Rights Council: More of the Same?” Wisconsin International Law Journal, 31 (2), pp. 209-251 (forthcoming 2014)

The author asserts that politicization, selectivity and bias remain endemic at the UN’s principal human rights body. Those issues are most clearly illustrated by reference to the Council’s relationship with Israel. The new body greatly resembles its failed predecessor, particularly with regards to the body’s composition and the “soft” membership criteria that do not impose formal requirements for compliance with human rights obligations. The similarities between the Commission and Council have resulted in the same tactics occurring at the new body as had overwhelmed its predecessor. As in the Commission, as well as other bodies, powerful groups and blocs in the Council have used tactics to block action being taken against their allies. Similarly, regional and political alliances have used collective influence to ensure the Council devotes disproportionate attention to particular countries, while shielding others.

Since 2008, the European Council on Foreign Relations has shown in a series of reports that Europe’s power in the UN is on the wane and bloc politics has been on the rise. There has been a gradual erosion of support for the EU’s positions in votes on human rights issues. In spite of individual successes, the US and EU were disappointed when a much-hyped inter-governmental review of the Human Rights Council failed to deliver politically significant results.

The authors study systematically the controversial resolutions voted upon in the UNHRC. These controversial resolutions are introduced by countries with a blemished human rights record. The countries that have a tendency to vote yes on resolutions introduced by Cuba are more likely to vote no on a resolution introduced by EU member countries and vice-versa. Controversial votes initiated by Pakistan and Cuba, and to a lesser extent Egypt lead to quite distinct voting patterns where EU member countries play a central role, but also almost systematically lose. Problems faced by the UNHRC’s predecessor, namely the Commission for Human Rights, have reappeared.

The author argues that the democratic processes provided for in the HRC mandate act as a gloss, giving democratic credibility to an organization that in practice undermines democracy. In fact the extent of the manipulation by states of the democratic principle means that at present there is very little democratic decision-making taking place at the Council. A human rights body should be democratic to give legitimacy to rights. In its present state the Council is not truly democratic, but with state representatives as its membership it is doubted whether it could achieve democratic decision-making. Although some international developments can be seen to enhance democratic decision-making to some extent, the return to strength of the political blocs in more recent sessions shows the dominance of politicisation over genuine democracy.

UN Watch