“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” begins Article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “They are gifted with reason and conscience and should act together in a spirit of brotherhood.” The Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is responsible for monitoring human rights violations, responding to them and demanding change. As the UN itself says, its main human rights body.
The lofty-sounding phrase and certainly important mission has one big catch. According to an assessment by the Freedom House think tank, only 30 percent of the 47 countries that make up the council are currently truly free.
The first sign of an improvement in the long-term downward trend came with the temporary exclusion of Russia based on human rights violations during its invasion of Ukraine. In May of last year, it was replaced by the Czech Republic.
The chart below shows the average human rights compliance scores of Human Rights Council member countries. The closer this value is to 1, the more these rights are respected.
“The Council is a UN body to which candidate states are elected for three years by the General Assembly,” Pavel Šturma, head of the Department of International Law at the Faculty of Law of Charles University, explains to Seznam Zpravy. He also has personal experience with the UN – in the past he was a member of its Commission for International Law. According to him, the decisive factor is which states get the majority of votes in the UN General Assembly, which elects a third of the council every year.
“Of the 193 members, the so-called West is far from having a majority today, so sometimes even states that violate human rights get into the council,” explains Šturm. “Before excluding some states from the possibility of applying for a seat, it would be contrary to the principle of sovereign equality of UN members. And it would certainly meet with strong resistance, especially from Africa, much of Asia and Latin America.”
Among the candidate countries for the period from 2024 to 2026, countries such as Cuba, Kuwait or Russia again appeared. But in the end it didn’t work. “This undesirable development is visible not only in the council, but all over the world,” Deutsche Welle quotes Silke Voss-Kyeck, a researcher at the German Institute for Human Rights. “Many member countries are governed in an authoritarian and dictatorial manner. Adherence to human rights obligations rarely plays a role in the election of board members.”
The composition of the council can then be reflected in the vote. For example, last year, eleven minutes before the end of the term of the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the council issued a report, according to which China was committing serious human rights violations. And she didn’t rule out crimes against humanity either.
Western countries have therefore suggested that the state of human rights in the autonomous province of Xinjiang, where the Uyghur Muslim minority lives, should be debated, or the behavior towards the minority should be condemned. Result? 17 countries – including the Czech Republic – were in favor, 11 abstained and 19 spoke against the proposal.
“One of the main activities of the council is the so-called universal periodic review, so that no UN member state escapes the examination of human rights compliance,” reminds Šturm. “Of course, the council is a political body, so the representatives of the states will ultimately influence how strong the emphasis is on a particular issue and criticism of a particular state, or vice versa. Some states are diplomatically able to secure a majority of votes.”
It is especially successful in China. “Today, China is under attack. Any other developing country will be a target tomorrow,” warned Chen Suu, its ambassador to the council, for example, before voting on the Uyghurs.
According to Yaqiu Wang, Human Rights Watch’s senior China researcher, the country is “in control” of Africa, for example. “I don’t think any specific country would stand up to China, except for Somalia,” DW quoted Wang as saying. “China has Africa in its pocket.”
According to Wang, the unifying element of this relationship is the rejection of Western dominance. “There is a history of China-Africa solidarity,” the expert said. “An alliance against Western imperialism.” China bases its support on this and mutual economic dependence, he adds.
The Asian power also has good relations with, for example, Pakistan, for which it is an ally against India. “It’s like a deal – you’ll vote with me and I’ll vote with you,” Wang explains.
And China is trying to exert influence in Latin America as well, even at the cost of intimidation. As an example, he gives a hypothetical situation between the representatives of the Asian power and Chile: “You know, you have to vote like this. You don’t want to undermine the economic ties between Chile and China, do you?” Wang describes the approach of the Chinese representatives.