New Report: Authoritarians Outpacing Democracies on UN Human Rights Body Despite Minority Status
Repressive countries are successfully undermining the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council despite being greatly outnumbered on the body by democracies, according to a new Freedom House analysis. The report identifies a trend in which authoritarian countries such as China, Cuba and Egypt invest significant resources toward hampering the council and are often aided by democracies that bow to their political pressure.
Freedom House released The UN Human Rights Council Report Card: 2007-2009 in advance of the council's 12th regular session which begins Monday in Geneva. The report evaluates the council's performance over the last two years, including the body's ability to address urgent human rights crises and counter emerging threats. In addition, the report provides a series of recommendations to improve council's work in the future.
"Democracies, including the United States, must make the UN Human Rights Council a higher foreign policy priority," said Paula Schriefer, Freedom House director of advocacy. "As it stands now, they are outspent and outclassed in Geneva by the world's authoritarians, who recognize the power that comes with controlling the only global human rights body."
Nearly half of the council's 47 members are countries that are designated as Free in Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties. More than a third of the council is made up of countries that are Partly Free, while less than one-fifth of the council is Not Free.
Key findings in the report include:
• Failing Grades: The council receives a failing grade on 4 of the 11 criteria reviewed. It notes the council's failure to call special sessions or pass resolutions on pressing human rights issues and to respond to the growing global threat against freedom of expression. Democracies are faulted for failing to uphold human rights standards when voting on key resolutions and when choosing new council members.
• Special Rapporteurs: The system of special rapporteurs provides the council with its only passing grade for producing quality reports despite limited staff and cooperation from the governments under review. However, there is growing pressure to eliminate country-specific rapporteurs and to weaken other thematic mandates.
• Resolutions and Special Sessions: The council has issued condemnatory resolutions on only a few countries since 2007, including a disproportionate number on Israel. Recent resolutions on Sudan and Sri Lanka were weak and no resolutions passed to address systematic abuses in countries such as Belarus, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Libya and Zimbabwe. There is slight improvement in the council's use of special sessions, but overall its performance remains disappointing.
• Universal Periodic Review: This consensus-based mechanism for monitoring the human rights records of all UN members has proven useful mainly for countries Freedom House designates as Free or those ranked near the top of the Partly Free category. States that are not interested in reform undermine the process by presenting overly positive reports about their records and lining up friendly countries to testify on their behalf.
• Freedom of Expression: Some council members have weakened the mandate on freedom of opinion and expression by requiring that the special rapporteur monitor "abuses of freedom of expression" related to religion or race, in addition to protecting free expression. Likewise, resolutions that urge countries to prohibit anti-Islamic or blasphemous speech continue to easily pass.
• Flawed Elections: A significant number of democracies continue to vote for repressive countries during council elections. A majority of the five regional groups of states decide in advance who will represent them, regardless of their human rights records, and offer clean slates that eliminate competition.
The United States, which had not sought a seat on the council since its establishment in 2006, will attend Monday’s session for the first time as an elected member of the council. The country should work with other democracies to break the system of bloc voting and reclaim the council as a body that protects human rights victims rather than abusers.
"While the U.S. cannot change the performance of the council on its own, it can play a critical role in beginning to shift the council back in the right direction," said Schriefer. "The Obama administration should make up for lost time by enhancing the staff of the UN mission and by appointing an experienced ambassador exclusively devoted to the council."
Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties worldwide since 1972.
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