Survey Finds Majority of UN States Suffer from Weak Rule of Law and Significant Human Rights Violations | Freedom House

Survey Finds Majority of UN States Suffer from Weak Rule of Law and Significant Human Rights Violations

New York

A major new assessment of the state of political rights and civil liberties finds that a majority of United Nations member states suffer from a weak rule of law and from significant violations of civil liberties and political freedoms. The survey -- released today by Freedom House, the US-based human rights NGO established by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941-- found that 55 percent of UN member countries commit serious and systematic human rights violations or suffer from a weak adherence to the rule of law and commit some human rights violations.

According to the survey, 50 UN member countries (27 percent of the UN total) engage in systematic and widespread human rights violations. It also found that another 52 of the UN member states (28 percent) abridge some human rights and are characterized by the weak enforcement of the rule of law.

A clear minority of United Nations member states-83 out of 185, or 45 percent-are rated as Free and have established effective rule of law systems that broadly protect basic political rights and civil liberties.

The Freedom House survey has important implications for the work of the United Nations. The fact that a UN majority still consists of states in which corruption, weak rule of law, and widespread or systematic human rights abuses prevail suggests that in the near term, UN instruments for enforcing the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not likely to be fully credible or effective. At the same time, trends in recent years show that the number of Free countries in the world body is increasing, suggesting that the UN may in the future find it easier to address questions of democratization and human rights.

The study noted that eight of 15 countries (53 percent) currently on the Security Council are Free, three (20 percent) are Partly Free, and four (27 percent) are Not Free. Among the permanent members of the Security Council, three are Free (France, the United Kingdom, and the United States); one-Russia-is rated Partly Free; and one-China-is Not Free.

As importantly, 27 of the 53 countries-a majority--represented on the U.N. Human Rights Commission suffer from systematic or serious human rights violations, while 26 are rated as Free and enjoy widespread political freedoms and civil liberties.

"The influence of non-democratic states and states which violate basic human rights is pervasive within the United Nations systems," declared Adrian Karatnycky, Freedom House president. "Frequently, this majority acts to block effective action., a problem which is made worse by democratic states which seek to preserve commercial advantage gained from trading with repressive regimes. The end result is a process in which the UN's ability to promote freedom effectively is weakened from within."

The study criticized recent efforts by UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson to give social and economic rights equal weight with political and cultural Rights. Such an approach is counterproductive, the Freedom House report charged. "It will undermine the effort to promote greater prosperity and social justice, which can only emerge if the primacy of civil and political rights-including a system of the rule of law and respect for property rights-is established," the report concluded. The report added that Ms. Robinson's efforts to champion social and economic rights blurs the distinction between desirable ends and aspirations and matters of absolute rights and opens the UN up to dead-end discussions of such abstract and unenforceable concepts as "the right to development."

"The findings show that fifty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nearly three in five UN states have poor or extremely poor records of respect for human rights and the majority of UN member states lack a system based on the effective rule of law" said Freedom House Chairman Bette Bao Lord.

At the same time, the Survey reported positive trends that are showing a strengthening of the ranks of Free and democratic states within the UN system. Despite financial turmoil in emerging markets and persistent civil strife in a number of countries, the survey showed the highest number of Free countries on record-- 82 countries that represent 44 percent of the UN's member states. Countries designated as Free in the survey respect a broad range of political, civil, and property rights and are characterized by the effective enforcement of the rule of law.

There were seven entrants into the ranks of Free countries in 1998, including India, which had been rated as Partly Free since 1991, a year that saw the killing of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, intense labor strife, and an escalation of inter-communal violence resulting in thousands of deaths. India's return to the ranks of Free countries was the consequence of greater internal stability, fewer instances of inter-communal violence, and the peaceful democratic transfer of power to an opposition-led government.

Other entrants into the ranks of Free countries were the Dominican Republic, where a democratically elected government has made efforts to strengthen the administration of justice; Ecuador, which recently concluded free and fair elections; Nicaragua, where improved relations between civilian authorities and a military formerly dominated by the Sandinistas contributed to the strengthening of democratic stability and where greater attention was paid to the problems of indigenous peoples on the country's Atlantic coast; Papua New Guinea, which saw a January 1998 peace agreement put an end to a destabilizing nine-year secessionist rebellion on Bougainville Island; Slovakia, where free and fair elections brought to power a government dominated by reformers; and Thailand, where the government of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has fostered increasing political accountability.

"Our findings are particularly important because some of the most dramatic gains for freedom occurred in large and influential countries," declared Karatnycky. He pointed to India, which moved from a Partly Free to Free status, and Nigeria and Indonesia, which moved from the ranks of the Not Free to the Partly Free. "Although the United Nations still retains a majority of countries characterized by weak regard for the rule of law and human rights, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been a hopeful year for global freedom," said Bette Bao Lord. "In part, this is due to the universal striving for human rights; in part it is due to the greater concerted efforts of a widening community of democratic states. Regrettably, despite the clear commitment to human rights and democracy of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the United Nations still faces enormous obstacles in emerging as an effective instrument for the promotion of basic human rights compliance given its anti-human rights majority."

Among the Survey's other principal findings: 

  • Over 57 percent of the countries in the UN are electoral democracies; these countries represent nearly 55 percent of the world's population.
  • The current Security Council has a higher proportion of free and democratic states than the UN General Assembly.
  • The attempt to establish an International Criminal Court will be complicated and dangerous given the "unfree" composition of the United Nations. Countries with a poor human rights and rule of law record will have significant influence on the composition of the new body.
  • Thirteen UN member states were judged to be the "worst of the worst" and received Freedom House's lowest rating for political rights and civil liberties. Three were under the domination of Communist parties: Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam; the others were Afghanistan, Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan.

Freedom House's review of United Nations' member state performance on basic rights issues was undertaken in conjunction with the release if its Annual Comparative Survey of Freedom, which was launched in 1973. The Comparative Survey of Freedom is an evaluation of political rights and civil liberties in the world based on a universal standard that Freedom House has provided on an annual basis since 1973. A copy of the Freedom House UN survey is available by calling (212) 514-8040.


Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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