Six decades ago, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, the magna carta for mankind. The historic proclamation was
created by a drafting committee that included Eleanor Roosevelt, founding chair of the UN
Human Rights Commission, Rene Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, P.C. Chang
of China, and John Humphrey of Canada, and enshrined core principles common to all
humanity. The 60th anniversary of the Declaration is a time to celebrate and reaffirm these
For proponents of human rights worldwide, however, the celebration of this historic text is
marred by the state of crisis that plagues the current UN Human Rights Council (HRC).
Created in 2006 to replace the Commission, which became discredited for being politicized
and acting arbitrarily, the HRC was supposed to mark a new beginning. Regrettably, with
few exceptions, the opposite has happened. The council is dominated today by an alliance of
repressive regimes, including China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, that has acted systematically to
undermine and erode core principles and effective mechanisms created by the generation of
Eleanor Roosevelt and those that followed.
For example, the Council this year overturned protection of freedom of expression by a
revised mandate, sponsored by Islamic states with Cuban support, that now polices “the
abuse” of this freedom. The Council eliminated human rights monitors in Belarus, Cuba,
Liberia, Congo (DRC), and Darfur. The expert on Sudan was renewed only for six months,
an anomalous term at the Council, and is slated for possible elimination at the March 2009
session. The Council appointed one expert who is the co-founder of the “Moammar
Qaddafi Human Rights Prize” (Jean Ziegler), and another who believes that the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, were an inside job (Richard Falk). Although a new
mechanism to review all states (Universal Periodic Review, or UPR) has potential, thus far it
has been largely a toothless exercise.
Sixty years after the founding vision of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rene Cassin, the United
Nations human rights system as a whole find itself in a state of crisis.
This UN Watch report includes the following key findings:
• Only 13 of 47 HRC Members Voted Positively: Out of 47 HRC member states,
only a minority of 13 had positive voting records in our study of actions taken on 32
key resolutions. In order of highest ranking, these were Canada, France, Germany,
Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Bosnia,
Ukraine, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. See scorecard and full table of resolutions.
• Majority 34 of 47 HRC Members Voted Negatively: A majority of 34 out of the
47 HRC member states had negative voting records—casting ballots against
independent human rights mechanisms or basic principles such as free speech—or
supported counter-productive resolutions sponsored by repressive regimes. From
bad to worse, these were: Guatemala, Uruguay, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia,
Gabon, Cameroon, Ghana, India, Madagascar, Philippines, Angola, Jordan,
Mauritius, Zambia, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Mali,
Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, South Africa, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia,
Malaysia, Nicaragua, Russia, Sri Lanka and China. See scorecard and full table of
• HRC Ignored Worst Abusers: In 2007-2008, the council failed to address the
world’s worst human rights violations. Of the 20 worst violators on Freedom
House’s annual survey, the council censured only Myanmar and North Korea.
While it did adopt resolutions on Sudan, these were non-condemnatory, weak, and
ineffective, some even praising Sudan for its “cooperation.” Somalia’s violations
were addressed as a matter of mere “technical consideration.” Even worse, the
council failed to adopt any resolution, special session or investigative mandate for:
Belarus, China, Cuba, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Laos, Libya,
Morocco, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. See table, “How HRC Addressed Worst Abusers.”
• The Spoilers Have It: While almost half of the Council’s 47 members are free
democracies (49%), only a minority of these countries—about a dozen—have
consistently voted in defense of the values and principles that the Council is
supposed to promote. Instead, the body has been dominated by an increasingly
brazen alliance of repressive regimes seeking not only to spoil needed reforms but to
undermine the few meaningful mechanisms of UN human rights protection that
already exist. Their goal is impunity for systematic abuses. Unfortunately, as this
report shows, too many democracies have been going along with the spoilers, out of
loyalty to regional groups and other political alliances.
• Total HRC Condemnations to Date: From its inception in June 2006 to the
present, the HRC has condemned North Korea in 1 resolution, Myanmar in 4, and
Israel in 20 resolutions. While the council did address Sudan several times, these
were not condemnations but weak and ineffective resolutions, some of which
actually praised Sudan for its “cooperation.” Despite the pleas of former UN
Secretary-General Kofi Annan as well as current UN chief Ban Ki-moon, the HRC’s
focus has actually become even more narrow than was the case under the former
Commission on Human Rights.
• Current Composition of the 2008-2009 Council:
o 24 out of 47 current UNHRC members (51%) fall short of basic democracy
standards, with ratings of either Partly Free or Not Free.
o 32 out of 47 UNHRC (68%) members have a negative voting record on UN
resolutions that promote human rights.
o 35 out of the current 47 UNHRC members (74%) have voted to restrict the
independence of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. See table
analyzing current HRC members.