How “Free” is the Human Rights Council?

There’s some grumbling among a certain cadre of UN critics that the new elections to the Human Rights Council failed to produce a majority of “free” countries to the council, as rated by Freedom House.

In fact, there is some truth to that: Of the 46 members of the council 20 are rated “free,” 15 partly free, 11 not free. But this line of criticism leaves out is that the world as a whole is not majority “free.”  Of the 194 countries rated by Freedom House, 87 are free, 60 partly free, and 47 not free, which is a break down of 45%/31%/24%. That is a proportion roughly equal to the current membership of the Human Rights Council.

The Human Rights Council, like most UN bodies, works off a system called equitable geographic representation. That means that regions with more countries (say Africa) get a greater number of seats on deliberative bodies than regions (say Western Europe) with fewer countries.

The thing is, if the Human Rights Council were exclusive–say, it restricted membership of the African bloc and increased the membership of Western Europeans — it would probably not be as useful an institution.  That is because the Human Rights Council does not have any power of its own, but depends on peer pressure and diplomacy to see its decisions are followed through.  So, when the Council takes a decision say, to send a fact finding mission to an African country, the African country in question is more likely to accept the fact finders if their peers were on board with the decision in the first place.

What these rankings also show that since the United States joined the council two years ago,  the ratio of free to not free members has increased.  That is, within the system of proportional geographic representation free countries have had a better record of winning council elections than before the United States joined.  This suggests that engagement at the Council, does in fact, make the council a better place.

Here’s the data I’m working off of, which was compiled by a loyal UN Dispatch reader.  It’s drawn from Freedom House.

Overall ratings in the world: 194 (87 free, 60 partly free, 47 not free) 45%/31%/24%

•          Africa Group: 53 (9 free, 23 partly free, 21 not free) 17%/43%/40%

•          Asian Group: 54 (14 free, 18 partly free, 22 not free) 26%/33%/41%

•          Eastern Europe: 24 (13 free, 8 partly free, 3 not free) 54%/33%/13%

•          GRULAC: 33 (22 free, 10 partly free, 1 not free) 67%/30%/3%

•          WEOG: 30 (30 free, 0 partly free, 0 not free) 100%/0%/0%

Post May 20 Council elections  the USA election to the council: 46*(20 free, 15 partly free, 11 not free) 43%/33%/24%

•          Africa Group: 12* (3 free, 4 partly free, 5 not free) 25%/34%/42%

•          Asian Group: 13 (2 free, 7 partly free, 4 not free) 15%/54%/31%

•          Eastern Europe: 6 (4 free, 1 partly free, 1 not free) 67%/16.5%/16.5%

•          GRULAC: 8 (4 free, 3 partly free, 1 not free) 50%/38%/12%

•          WEOG: 7 (7 free, 0 partly free, 0 not free) 100%/0%/0%

Before May 20 Council elections  the USA election to the council: 46*(18 free, 16 partly free, 12 not free) 39%/35%/26%

•          Africa Group: 12* (2 free, 5 partly free, 5 not free) 16%/42%/42%

•          Asian Group: 13 (2 free, 6 partly free, 5 not free) 16%/46%/38%

•          Eastern Europe: 6 (3 free, 2 partly free, 1 not free) 50%/34%/16%

•          GRULAC: 8 (4 free, 3 partly free, 1 not free) 50%/38%/12%

•          WEOG: 7 (7 free, 0 partly free, 0 not free) 100%/0%/0%

*Note: This does not count Libya, which is suspended indefinitely (and not free).


UPDATE: David Bosco: “But here’s what I would like to know: are the African countries elected to the Council freer than the average for that region? Ditto for other regions. In other words, within the system of geographical representation, do better performers tend to be elected to the Council?”

ME: According to Freedom House, Sub Saharan Africa is 19% free, 46% partly free 35% not free, compared to  25%/34%/42% on the council today. But NB, North Africa is generally considered part of the Africa Group. Freedom house disaggregates the two.

UPDATE II:  If folks want to crunch the numbers and to compare the regions in the way David describes, you’d be doing the world a service.