In 2022, Only 31.9% of UN Human Rights Council Will Be ‘Free’ Countries

By Patrick Goodenough | October 5, 2021 | 4:37am EDT
The logo of the United Nations at the Human Rights Council chamber in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
The logo of the United Nations at the Human Rights Council chamber in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

( – Fewer than one-third of the seats in the U.N. Human Rights Council next year will be occupied by “free” democracies – for the first time in the 16-year history of the body.

The Geneva-based council has long been plagued by the presence in its ranks of some of the world’s most egregious rights-abusing regimes, but never before have countries ranked as “free” by the democracy watchdog Freedom House not held at least one-third of the 47 seats.

In 2022, however, the caucus of “free” members will shrink to just 15 members, or 31.9 percent of the total.

The rest of the membership next year will comprise 14 “not free” countries – including Russia, China, Cuba, Sudan, Qatar, and the Maduro regime in Venezuela – and 18 countries graded as “partly free” in Freedom House’s annual assessment, based on political rights and civil liberties.

Sixteen of next year’s members will belong to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the bloc of Muslim-majority states that has played an outsized role in the council’s skewed focus on Israel. (Israel is the only country, out of 193 U.N. member-states, to be targeted by a permanent agenda item at the HRC.)

(Graph: / Data: OHCHR, Freedom House)
(Graph: / Data: OHCHR, Freedom House)

The General Assembly has scheduled elections for the HRC for Thursday of next week in New York. But next year’s membership can already been determined, since not one of the five regional groups recognized by the U.N. is putting up a competitive slate.

That includes the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), to which the United States belongs.

The Biden administration, reengaging with the council after its predecessor withdrew, is running for a seat under the same “closed slate” arrangement that previous U.S. administrations have strongly criticized on the grounds the lack of competition has enabled autocracies to win seats.

HRC members serve for three-year terms, with elections each fall for one-third of the 47 seats for the following year. The Oct. 14 voting procedure will fill 18 seats – five from Africa, five from Asia, three from Latin America and the Caribbean, three from WEOG, and two from Eastern Europe.

All five groups have put forward the same number of candidates as there are vacant seats for that group, so barring any last-minute changes, the outcome of “election” – an exercise without any actual contest – is pre-determined.

The only time in past elections when influential rights-abusing regimes have lost their bids for a HRC seat has been when competitive slates were presented to the voting General Assembly members. Russia, for example, failed to win a seat in 2016 because its regional group put forward three candidates for two vacancies.

But competitive slates have become a rarity: Of all the annual elections held for the HRC since it was established, only the inaugural one in May 2006 saw contests in all five regional groups. In 2009, 2010, 2011, 2018, all five groups offered closed slates – and the same is happening again this month.

Before the Biden administration announced its intention to run for a council seat next year, WEOG candidates for the three vacancies were Italy, Finland and Luxembourg

Italy subsequently withdrew – reportedly under pressure from the U.S. to avoid a competitive slate.

The same thing occurred back in 2009, when the Obama administration – also reversing its predecessor’s policy of shunning the HRC – ran for a seat for the first time. WEOG already had three candidates nominated for three available seats, but when the U.S. decided to run one of them, New Zealand, withdrew at the eleventh hour.

(By contrast, in 2012 the U.S. joined a five-way contest for three WEOG seats; the U.S., Germany and Ireland won, while Sweden and Greece fell short.)

One of the main reasons cited by the Trump administration for withdrawing from the HRC in 2018 was the poor quality of membership.

“It is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council,” President Trump had told the U.N. General Assembly the previous fall.

Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley then led a year-long push to reform the council, but without success.

“We spent a whole year trying to negotiate with 193 countries on changing and reforming the Human Rights Council,” she recalled last January. “Right now you have every murderer, dictator and thief on that council.”

When he informed the HRC last February that the U.S. would seek a seat in elections this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We humbly ask for the support of all U.N. member-states in our bid to return to a seat in this body.”

He acknowledged flaws in the council, including “its disproportionate focus on Israel.”

“In addition, we will focus on ensuring that the council membership reflects high standards for upholding human rights,” Blinken said. “Those with the worst human rights records should not be members of this council.”

Echoing the stance of the Obama administration, the Biden administration says having a seat at the table puts it in a better position to encourage reforms.

The Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all sought to reform the HRC, with little evident success.

The projected HRC membership in 2022:

NOT FREE (14): Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Libya, Qatar, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela.

PARTLY FREE (18):  Armenia, Benin, Bolivia, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mexico, Montenegro, Nepal, Pakistan, Paraguay, Senegal, Ukraine.

FREE (15):  Argentina, Brazil, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Namibia, Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, United States.

OIC MEMBERS (16):  Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Gambia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Libya, Malaysia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates.


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