Earlier this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council concluded its 53rd Regular Session. The UNHRC, which replaced the Human Rights Commission in 2006, has been charged with promoting human rights worldwide and making recommendations on human rights abuses. However, this UN body has been utterly ineffective in fulfilling its mission of upholding human rights. So, how did UNHRC become so ineffective, and what can be done to fix it?
A contributing factor to the UNHRC’s ineffectiveness is the institution’s configuration and the criteria it applies when determining how and which countries are selected. The UNHRC is comprised of 47 members who are elected for three-year terms. In order to join the UNHRC, a country has to be nominated by its regional group. The UN organizes member states into five geopolitical regional groups in order to achieve an equitable geographic distribution over different UN bodies.
These groups include: Group of African States, Group of Asian States, Group of Eastern European States, Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (GRULAC), and Western European and Other States Group (WEOG). After being nominated by their group, the only remaining requirement that a country has to meet is election by an absolute majority in the general assembly through a secret ballot. In terms of which countries will be represented, UNHRC apportions seats based on the five aforementioned regional groups. The current allocation is as follows: the African and Asian States groups each get 13 seats, GRULAC gets eight seats, WEOG gets seven seats, and the Eastern European States get six seats.
The problem with this current arrangement is that it has reduced the representation from the WEOG, which means that there are fewer democracies representing the council. Likewise, the vast majority of countries outside the WEOG have either questionable or abysmal human rights records. Coupled with the fact that the only other criteria for joining the UNHRC is election by a majority of member states, the result is that most members that end up serving on the UNHRC are countries with questionable or poor human rights records.
The current makeup of the UNHRC illustrates this point. Right now, two-thirds of the members sitting on the UNHRC are listed by Freedom House as either “partly free” or “not free.” Several of the current members have atrocious human rights records. For instance, China, an oppressive Communist dictatorship that has forced over a million Uighur Muslims into concentration camps, sits on the UNHRC.
Other well-known human rights abusers currently serving on the UNHRC include Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Cuba, Eritrea, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Qatar, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
Countries with poor human rights records undermine the UNHRC
The consequence of having countries with poor human rights records on the UNHRC is that it undermines the credibility of the institution by granting immunity to the world’s worst human rights abusers, failing to hold them to account. That explains why there have been zero condemnatory resolutions leveled against countries such as Algeria, Cuba, China, Iraq, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, among others.
The UNHRC has not only failed in holding human rights abusers to account but has actually promoted and glorified them. For instance, countries such as China and Saudi Arabia have been appointed to the UNHRC’s five-member Consultative Group, responsible for appointing independent UN experts to key UN human rights posts, who in turn craft international standards for human rights and report on violations worldwide.
Some of these appointed experts have used their mandates to praise human rights abusers. One instance out of many could be seen with UN expert Alfred de Zayas using his mandate to praise and spread propaganda on the Maduro Regime in Venezuela.
While turning a blind eye to countries rife with human rights abuse, the UNHRC is obsessed with condemning Israel, a free democracy. Every year, Israel is subjected to more condemnatory resolutions than any other country. During the first 10 years since its inception, from 2006-2016, the UNHRC passed 68 condemnatory resolutions against Israel, which was more than the rest of the entire world combined.
Like its predecessor organization, the UNHRC follows a certain agenda that is composed of 10 agenda items. All countries have their human rights records scrutinized under Agenda Item 4. However, Israel is the only country on the UNHRC’s permanent agenda, which is inspected under special Agenda Item 7 (“Human rights violations and implications of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”). The Palestinian Authority, Syria, North Korea, and other council members routinely accuse Israel of crimes and human rights violations without mentioning Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or the PA.
Moreover, Israel has been the focus of more commissions of inquiry than any other country. There have been at least nine commissions of inquiry on Israel, while there has only been one commission of inquiry on North Korea and two on Libya, Myanmar, and Syria. Additionally, more special sessions have been held on Israel than on any other country.
Although no country in the world, including Israel, is above scrutiny, when one country is constantly subjected to condemnation, while simultaneously ignoring human rights abuses in other countries, it significantly hinders the UNHRC’s credibility and its ability to address human rights concerns.
In order to address the UNHRC’s ineffectiveness, the UN body should no longer use regional groupings when allocating seats. Instead, the UNHRC needs to base membership on a country’s human rights record and use objective standards when evaluating its human rights record. This would help the UNHRC in fulfilling its purpose of upholding human rights.
The writer is an attorney and a graduate of Widener University School of Law.