Seven Countries That Shouldn’t (But Will) Be Elected to the UN Human Rights Council | Freedom House

Seven Countries That Shouldn’t (But Will) Be Elected to the UN Human Rights Council

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Photo Credit: AK Rockefeller

On its face, the announcement that Jordan has dropped out as a candidate for the November 12 elections to the 47-member UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) seems like good news. Rated Not Free by Freedom House, Jordan is not exactly known for its respect for universal human rights, and it has seen little if any genuine movement toward democracy in recent years. But sadly, the kingdom was considered the least objectionable in a list of despotic regimes that are currently running in its regional group, which includes Asia and the Middle East. Its departure from the race allows three countries with far worse human rights records—China, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam—and deteriorating democratic hopeful Maldives to run unopposed for the group’s 4 open seats. No country running unopposed has ever failed to garner the 97 General Assembly votes necessary to win a seat, so barring an act of protest by the assembly, their victory is virtually guaranteed.

A total of 7 objectionable candidates—including Russia, which is also running unopposed—are poised to become new members of the UNHRC, whose mission is to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” Unfortunately, the allotment of council seats, by regional groups based on population size, means that regions with fewer democratic countries such as Africa and Asia have far more seats. This, coupled with the failure of all regional groups to present competitive slates, allows the very rights abusers that should be the targets of the council’s scrutiny to play a significant role in setting international standards.

The sad state of the council’s elections, as well as its glaringly disproportionate focus on Israel and its failure to sanction some of the world’s worst abusers, paints a very negative picture. However, the news is not all bad. Notable authoritarian states such as Russia, Cuba, China, and Saudi Arabia have all served on the council at various points in the past few years and have been unable or unwilling to stand in the way of significant action in support of human rights, including condemnation of the situations in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Belarus, and Eritrea, and positive resolutions and special mandates on important issues like freedom of expression and association and the rights of women and LGBT people.

Nevertheless, consideration of candidates’ human rights records is critical to the ability of the Council to truly function as a respected norm-setting body and would go far in helping the UNHRC to gain the support of the international community, which remains skeptical given the current membership.

Here are the seven countries (in alphabetical order) that have demonstrated little or no respect for human rights and should be opposed in their bids for seats on the UNHRC.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

Algeria is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2013. Although the government lifted its 19-year state of emergency in 2012, little has been done to advance human rights or empower civil society. Public demonstrations over high unemployment, rising prices, and the lack of political freedoms are quashed, often violently, and freedoms of association, expression, and movement are restricted. Moreover, under the Algerian family code, women do not enjoy equal rights in marriage, divorce, or inheritance, and independent activism by women’s rights groups is not tolerated.


China is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2013 and remains one of the world’s most repressive countries. The Chinese Communist Party monopolizes political power, and dissent is effectively criminalized, with government critics and democracy activists regularly facing arbitrary detention and long prison terms. The media are strictly controlled, and international watchdog groups report that at least 32 journalists are currently jailed. Religion is closely supervised; independent Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim worship is harshly restricted; and some groups, such as Falun Gong, are viciously persecuted. Police violence and torture are used extensively, particularly in response to antigovernment demonstrations. The regime systematically monitors and censors its 530 million internet users, the world’s largest online population. And China has regularly voted against actions supporting human rights both in the UN General Assembly and as a member of the UNHRC, including resolutions condemning abuses in North Korea, Burma, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Syria.


Photo Credit: Hvd69

Cuba is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2013 and is also on Freedom House’s list of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Any form of political opposition is consistently suppressed, as dissidents face harassment, beatings, exile, acts of repudiation, and unlawful detentions. Cuba’s subservient judiciary is used to ensure the Communist Party’s supremacy. Freedoms of expression, association, and assembly are limited or denied entirely. The government closely regulates all media outlets and restricts access to outside information. Journalists and bloggers are often arbitrarily detained. Cuba has consistently played a negative role on the UNHRC, voting against resolutions on Iran and Syria while supporting resolutions that open the door to abuses.


Counter protesters attack LGBT rights advocates peacefully demonstrating in Voronezh
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Russia is ranked Not Free in the Freedom of the World 2013 report. Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency has brought about a new period of accelerated repression, with laws that further stifle independent political and civic activity, severe new penalties for unauthorized demonstrations, egregious restrictions on the ability of NGOs to raise funds and operate, and additional controls on the internet. Foreign aid agencies have been expelled and foreign broadcasters banned for promoting democratic values. At the United Nations, Russia has opposed resolutions that condemn or seek to address human rights abuses, consistently working with China on the Security Council to block international action that could help free the Syrian people from war and oppression.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi blogger Hamza Kashgari.
Photo Credit: Hamza Kashgari's Twitter Feed (

Saudi Arabia is one of only nine countries to have received the lowest possible ratings in Freedom in the World 2013. The Saudi authorities have systematically arrested, tried, and imprisoned the country’s most visible human rights activists and protesters, including the cofounders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. Saudi Arabia’s activity at the United Nations mirrors its attitude toward human rights at home. For example, it abstained from voting on a General Assembly resolution against extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, and it recently campaigned for, then rejected, a seat on the UN Security Council, showing that it is not willing to contribute constructively to the UN system.

South Sudan

Photo Credit: Steve Evans

South Sudan is ranked Not Free in Freedom in the World 2013. In Jonglei State, government forces continue to attack and kill civilians, claiming that they inhibit counterinsurgency efforts. Ethnic tensions have persisted and in some cases worsened since independence, thousands of people have been displaced in internal conflicts, and abusive practices like child marriage remain common. As a new member of the UN General Assembly, South Sudan has done little to prove its dedication to human rights, abstaining from voting on multiple positive resolutions, including the measure that condemned extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. Reinforcing the country’s lack of suitability as a UNHRC member, there has recently been a strong movement at the council to create a special mandate to investigate its human rights situation.


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Vietnam is ranked Not Free in Freedom of the World 2013, and its human rights situation has deteriorated in recent years. The ruling Communist Party is the only legal political party. The media is strictly controlled and monitored, freedom of assembly is suppressed, religious and academic freedoms are restricted, and the judiciary is subordinate to the party leadership. Despite steady improvements in the lead-up to Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2007, civil liberties slid rapidly thereafter as the government arrested and imprisoned many dissidents and critical bloggers. In September 2013 the restrictive Decree 72 limited all online exchanges to the vaguely defined category of “personal information,” opening the door to further crackdowns on dissent. As a member of the UN General Assembly, Vietnam has opposed multiple resolutions against oppression in North Korea, Burma, and Iran. Vietnam also abstained on a resolution addressing human rights violations in Syria.

*Meagan Allen, Jessica Kosmider and Andrew Rizzardi contributed to the blog post.


Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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