The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council. That’s not how the council was supposed to work.

Here are key moments from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley's announcement on June 19. (Video: The Washington Post)

Last week, the United States pulled out of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Prior to formally withdrawing from the council, the Trump administration had expressed two concerns about the organization, namely that the members’ human rights records needed to improve and that the council focused too much on Israeli actions in Palestinian-controlled territory.

The Human Rights Council is a U.N. body comprising 47 member countries. It is empowered to review and investigate human rights concerns in all U.N. member countries. Members are elected for three-year terms.

The problems of the Human Rights Council aren’t new. In fact, the United Nations created the council in 2006 to replace the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which repeatedly drew fire for including human rights abusers among its membership.

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In our prior research, we analyzed the factors influencing which states were elected to the commission between 1980 and 2000. Updating that analysis, we found that the membership problems that bedeviled the Human Rights Commission were not resolved by the new council.

The Human Rights Council: A new way to elect members?

Our paper focused on the established link between democracies and greater respect for human rights, and the fact that countries were elected to the Human Rights Commission based on regional slates. Whether countries with better/worse human rights records were elected depended on the number of democracies in the region.

In regions not dominated by democracies, it was easier for states with poor human-rights records to get elected — and they used the commission to shield themselves or neighbors from censure. In more democratic regions, it was harder for states with poor records to be elected.

When the council was first created in 2006, our analysis suggested that the revisions would make a meaningful difference. The architects of the council believed that changing the selection mechanism from election by the Economic and Social Council to election by the General Assembly would call greater attention to the candidates and alter the incentives for seeking membership on the Human Rights Council.

Initially, the General Assembly did not elect several states with poor records (Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan), while others with poor records put themselves forward but later withdrew (Syria and Iraq). The hope was that if the percentage of democracies in the world continued to increase, only states with strong human-rights records would be selected, regardless of the regional norms.

Here’s how we did our research

To update our previous work, we examined whether or not more democratic states were actually being elected to the Human Rights Council under the new system.

The results were not reassuring to those hoping for members that respect human rights. For four of the five regions, the average level of democracy for the states selected for the council actually decreased from those elected in 2006 to those sitting on the council in 2018. Actual measures of human rights practices published by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch between the two time periods show similar results.

The selection process did work as envisioned in Eastern Europe, the one region with an uptick in democratic governance. In 2016, a competitive General Assembly vote elected Hungary and Croatia to the council, while Russia lost by two votes.

But as populist governments in Eastern Europe increasingly push back on human rights, progress on the makeup of the council is imperiled here as well. In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, Russia immediately declared its candidacy for the open council seat.

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Why didn’t the change work?

The Trump administration was not alone in its criticism of the membership of the Human Rights Council. So what went wrong?

The new selection process did not improve the character of the council. While nominations are still made by regional groupings, the weakening of democratic norms in many regions has made it easier for countries with bad records to get elected.

An added problem was that most of the regions put forward “clean slates” with the same number of nominees as available seats, creating a lack of competition in the elections. Western Europe (the region that includes the U.S.) seldom has more candidates than seats, but this does not affect the membership patterns much, since the countries in the region are democratic. Africa has a tradition of rotating seats, meaning that weakening democratic norms ensure countries with poorer records can end up on the council.

Importantly, focusing solely on competitive elections does not always produce a membership with more democratic states. Both Cuba (elected in 2016) and Venezuela (elected in 2015) were chosen in competitive elections.

What happens now?

Will the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw from the council bring about changes or a new round of reforms? During the administration of George W. Bush, the U.S. sat on the sidelines because of concerns that it might not get elected. This meant states with lesser human rights records helped establish the norms and standards in the council’s early years.

In 2009, the Obama administration chose to participate in the council, feeling that it was imperative for states to be held to the expectation that members will “uphold the highest standards” of human rights.

Asking the council to be truly impartial is difficult, as the Human Rights Council is made up of member states rather than independent human rights experts. While the 2006 changes altered the selection process for member states, it did not alter their incentives once on the council — to act in their own self-interests.

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As a result, the states on the council selectively offer judgments against selectively chosen countries on selective issues. Addressing this selectivity requires U.S. engagement. When the United States, an ally of Israel, has been on the council, the negative attention on Israel decreased.

The U.S. departure from the council removes Washington’s voice in what human rights judgments to pass — so U.S. allies are now more likely to become ready targets. More importantly, it gives the U.S. little say in potential future reforms to the council’s operations.

Without a sustained commitment to strengthen democracies and manage the Human Rights Council elections, the selectivity that Ambassador Nikki Haley decried is only certain to worsen in the coming years. 

Susan Hannah Allen is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi whose research focuses on influence in the international system. Find her on Twitter @lady_professor. 

Martin S. Edwards is an associate professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations whose research explores international organizations. Find him on Twitter @MartinSEdwards.