U.N. Human Rights Council Members Must Confront Abusers

By Jane Morse
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Democratic member states of the fledgling U.N. Human Rights Council thus far have not proven themselves able to confront human rights abusers, say U.S. officials.

During a recent interview with USINFO, Erica Barks-Ruggles highlighted the need for greater will among council members to live up to the council’s commitment to protect human rights worldwide. Barks-Ruggles is a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Although a majority of the 47-member council comprises democratic nations with decent records on advancing human rights in their own countries, these countries have failed to stand up to the minority on the council that does not have strong human rights records, Barks-Ruggles said.

“It has been sad to see that there has not been the political will of the majority of democratic states on the Human Rights Council to stand up and work together as democracies who want to advance human rights in a more concerted way.  And we hope that that will change, but so far we haven’t seen it,” she said.

“I think some of this reflects old attitudes,” Barks-Ruggles said.  “I think some of it is fear instilled by ‘bloc member mentality’ of old that we believe is outdated and outmoded in this globalized world.”

Ambassador Grover Joseph Rees, acting deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, told USINFO that practical and ideological reasons might prevent some democratic members of the council from challenging the nondemocratic members.

“They don’t believe in criticizing other governments; and this issue of interference in internal affairs resonates with some countries and some regional blocs,” Rees said.


The U.N. Charter calls for member states “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women.”

To further that goal, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights was formed in 1946.  Among the commission’s early leaders were former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a forceful human rights advocate, and Rene Cassin, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968 for his work in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948.

The 53-member commission became discredited over the years, however, when human rights violators such as Cuba, Zimbabwe and Sudan were allowed to join.  Libya, notorious for human rights abuses, was elected to chair the commission in 2003.  In 2005, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged: “The Commission’s declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”

In an attempt to rectify the situation, the U.N. General Assembly replaced the commission in March 2006 with the Human Rights Council.  The Council’s 47 seats are allocated to 13 countries in Africa, 13 in Asia, six in Eastern Europe, eight in Latin America and the Caribbean and seven to countries in Western Europe and “others.”  (See related article.)

But the U.N. General Assembly declined to ban from the council’s membership countries that are under U.N. Security Council sanctions for human rights abuses.  Council members instead are approved by a simple majority vote by the General Assembly.  Current council members include countries with troubled human rights records such as China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

To date, the council has passed 12 resolutions - nine condemning Israel for human rights abuses against Palestinians and Lebanon and three noncondemnatory resolutions on Sudan.


The United States voted against the formation of the council, citing concern over the failure to institutionalize any human rights criteria for membership. It has declined to seek membership for itself. (See related article.)

In an April 2006 letter to the foreign ministers of other U.N. member states, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear that the United States will support membership on the council only for those states that have “a genuine commitment to human rights” and not for states “that systematically abuse human rights,” including countries that are cited under the U.N. Charter for human rights abuses or sponsorship of terrorism.

The “institution-building” process of the council’s first year, according to Barks-Ruggles, has been a concern for the United States.  “The last-minute backroom deals that were made in a nontransparent manner, which ended up depriving several democratic member states of their right to vote,” she said, “were against all tradition, all the rules in the system.”

Barks-Ruggles called for the council’s democracies with good human rights records to turn the council away from this “single, much politicized issue [Israel] and actually begin to address egregious human rights violations around the world, including in Burma, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Cuba.”  She also urged the council to demand cooperation from the Sudanese government in investigations of human rights abuses.

“If there is no demonstrated political will by member states who are strong defenders of human rights, then this body will fail,” she said.

For additional information, see The United States and the United Nations.