In October 2017, the United Nations General Assembly elected 15 new members to serve three-year terms on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Three of the new members—Chile, Mexico and Peru—are from Latin America. They replace Bolivia, El Salvador and Paraguay.
The election of Chile, Mexico and Peru is some rare good news for the UNHRC. The three new members from the Americas have all typically been staunch defenders of democracy and human rights in multilateral bodies. What’s more, they replace three countries that, to varying degrees, undermined international human rights norms during their three year terms; Bolivia almost always voted against UNHRC resolutions on Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela, while Paraguay and El Salvador frequently abstained.
Two later developments, however, changed this potentially positive outcome for the UNHRC. On June 19th, 2018, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, announced that the U.S. was pulling out of the UNHRC, citing attacks against Israel and accusing the body of protecting the worst human rights abusers in the world.
As we have documented here since 2015, the UNHRC includes a number of prominent non-democracies from the Western Hemisphere. This currently includes Cuba and Venezuela. Even democratic countries such as Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador have either sided with the non-democracies or abstained on key votes concerning flagrant human rights abuses in Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Ukraine, and the UN General Assembly has failed to show any willingness to choose UNHRC members on the basis of their human rights record.
Nevertheless, the U.S.’s decision to pull out sends the wrong signal at a time when global liberal norms and institutions are coming under increasing strain from authoritarian governments and nationalism. The decision removes the U.S. and its voice from the premier, albeit flawed, global body dedicated to human rights. At the same time, the move also undermines the authority of independent U.S.-based human rights groups that dedicate a fair share of their work to activity of the UNHRC, including submitting reports on conditions inside countries and contributing to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in parallel events.
In our report in 2017, we proposed a set of reforms, drawing on the work of our partner organization in Argentina, Centro para el Apertura y el Desarrollo en América Latina (CADAL).
There is also one more recent development that may change the complexion of the hemisphere’s participation in the UNHRC. Mexican Presidentelect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has stated repeatedly his commitment to non-intervention. How this will play out in Mexico’s foreign policy and its relationship with multilateral groups is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, it is likely that AMLO’s government will, at least, begin to shift Mexico’s foreign policy.
Excluding the U.S., the UNHRC members from the Western Hemisphere are: Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela.
In this period, consisting of the 37th regular session and the 27th special session, the UNHRC voted on four resolutions from three of the countries that we have been tracking: Syria, Iran, and the situation of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar (two resolutions). Voting from the region broke down roughly as expected, though Brazil abstained from voting on Resolution 37/30: “Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Apart from Brazil’s abstention on Resolution 37/30, the region’s consistent defenders of human rights norms—Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and the United States—voted in favor of all three resolutions at the 37th session. Cuba and Venezuela unsurprisingly voted against all four resolutions, while Ecuador maintained its tradition of abstaining from resolutions on specific countries.
At the 27th special session, which took place before the new members took their seats on the Council, only seven of the hemisphere’s nine members participated in the vote. UN records show no participation from Bolivia or Cuba in the resolution.
As the votes we have been tracking over our five reports demonstrate, the UNHRC is an inherently flawed body because a large number of the countries that make up the Council fail to uphold a commitment to human rights, not just in country resolutions brought before the Council but also in their own countries. Ecuador’s failure to vote in favor of a resolution condemning ongoing genocide in Myanmar is illustrative of the flaws of the Council.
As we say above, despite its name, the UNHRC is far from a “Council of human rights respecting democracies.” This issue has become more pressing over time. Using the Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report, we’ve tracked the makeup of the Council since 2007. The last ten years has seen a slow but consistent erosion of the number of “free” countries on the Council, which has been accompanied by a corresponding growth of “not free” Council members. In 2018 “not free” countries reach an all time high of 14 seats on the Council, up from nine a decade ago.
As the chart below shows, countries classified as “free” by Freedom House (20 seats) are now outnumbered by “partly free” and “not free” countries (27 seats). In 2007, “free” countries enjoyed a one-seat advantage. Nevertheless, the UNHRC still manages to consistently draw majority support to condemn egregious human rights abuses in countries such as Syria, Myanmar, and North Korea because “partly free” countries are often more willing to call attention to human rights abuses abroad than they are to address their own (admittedly less severe) domestic problems.