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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory


Human Rights Defended by Dictatorships?

(Latin America Goes Global) Recently, a third of the members of the UN Human Rights Council were renewed with China, the biggest dictatorship in the world, accumulating no less than 180 votes which gives proof to the assumption that several developed democracies voted in China's favour.
By Gabriel C. Salvia

(Latin America Goes Global) Wouldn't it be paradoxical if an organisation that is assigned to promote the protection of human rights in the world was integrated by dictatorships? The UN Human Rights Council, founded in 2006, is comprised by 47 states, and suffers from this contradiction. An analysis of the council's member states since its creation casts doubt over whether the organisation has the ability to fulfil its function.

Since its foundation, the UN General Assembly elects member states of the council via secret ballot. Two considerations are playing a pivotal role in the process: The first and more logical one is that countries, who become members, have high standards of human rights or have made significant progress on this regard. The second consideration is rather insensitive to those who suffer from the violation of basic liberties, as the council shall include dictatorial regimes. The idea is that their incorporation would help reduce the amount of repression applied in these countries.

The problem is that out of the 193 UN member states, stable democracies with good institutions are a minority and, besides, they do not coordinate their human rights' policies.

On the other side, dictatorships and low quality democracies form the majority in the UN. Therefore, due to their endeavour to perpetuate power, their willingness to coordinate policies with other autocratic states and the complexity of many democracies, it comes as no surprise that dictatorships have managed to become long-lasting members of the council in order to undermine its objectives.

Dictatorships neither face political opposition in their country nor criticism by the local press because they know how to silence these voices. Since strong criticism usually comes on the international stage, they seek to legitimise their regime by paying special attention to international organisations.

The election of member states to the UN Human Rights Council reflects this point. China, Cuba and Saudi-Arabia, dictatorships with different economic weight, territory and population, have been elected four times. Furthermore, between 2007 and 2019, there was no country that has spent more time in the council than these three nations. By contrast, there are several developed democracies that have splendid records with regards to civil and political rights, freedom of the press and transparency but have never been present at this organisation: Finland participated for only one year, Norway for three while Switzerland has never been a member.

Recently, a third of the member states have been renewed with China, the biggest dictatorship in the world, accumulating no less than 180 votes giving proof to the assumption that many established democracies voted in favour of China. Apart from that, Cuba received 160 votes and Saudi-Arabia 152.

Although the member states are selected per region, countries with good democratic institutions in Latin America have been part of the Council for significantly shorter amounts of time compared to countries that violate human rights on a regular basis.

For example, Costa Rica, as an established democracy, was a member for only three years from 2012 till 2014 while Chile only participated between 2009 and 2014. Uruguay was a part of the Council between 2007 and 2012 and the last time they applied, they lost their bid against Cuba.

At the present time, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina do not take part in the council. The eight seats that awarded to Latin America are, among others, currently filled by Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela indicating a clear overrepresentation of Bolivarian countries.

How could this tendency be countered? A change could happen by altering the election process of the Council’s members. If a country's vote in the General Assembly were public, the election would become more transparent so that an internal debate about the votes casted by developed democracies would emerge.

Furthermore, it is necessary that an effective coordination takes place between countries that have flawless human rights records. This could be done through the Community of Democracies, an intergovernmental institution that is largely not functional these days. In the case of Latin America, it means that their most established democracies, whose recent past is still characterised by brutal military dictatorships, should act as a bloc and make sure that at least one of them always takes part in the Human Rights Council.

Unfortunately, the current political climate, which includes global terrorism, migratory crisis and the victory of a controversial presidential candidate in the United States, does not generate much optimism regarding increased international efforts to defend human rights. For this reason, civil society organisations have a pivotal role in promoting democracy and making sure that multilateral human rights organisations do not become a legitimising platform for undemocratic regimes.

Source: Latin America Goes Global (Washington, Estados Unidos)

Gabriel C. Salvia
Gabriel C. Salvia
General Director of CADAL
International human rights activist. Since 1992 he has served as director of Civil Society Organizations and is a founding member of CADAL. As a journalist he worked in graphics, radio and TV. Compiled several books, among them "Diplomacy and Human Rights in Cuba" (2011), "Human rights in international relations and foreign policy" (2021) and "75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Views from Cuba" (2023), and he is the author of "Dancing for a mirage: notes on politics, economics and diplomacy in the governments of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner" (2017). He is also the author of several reports, including " The chairs of the Council: authoritarianism and democracies in the evolution of the integration of the UN Human Rights body" and "Memory closed: The complicity of the Cuban revolution with the Argentine military dictatorship".

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