(c) 2003, Stephen E. Sachs <contact me>

Sins of Commmission:
Repressive Regimes and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights

by Stephen E. Sachs

PPE IT Project
Merton College
June 20, 2003


1.  Introduction

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the body responsible for drafting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, monitors the practices of nations worldwide and is charged with calling attention to abuses at the highest levels.[1]  Yet in recent years, the Commission has included regimes notorious for their repeated denials of individual liberty and violations of human dignity.  In 2002, the Commission's members included such highly repressive regimes as China, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Vietnam—all nominated by their regional neighbors and elected to their posts.  According to assessments by the human rights group Freedom House, those nations with the worst human rights records enjoyed the highest rate of representation on the Commission (56%)—more than double the worldwide average representation rate (27.6%).

Fig. 1—Commission Representation by Average Liberty Score, 2002


In other words, by 2002 the majority of the world's most repressive regimes had received Commission membership, and such regimes were twice as likely to be elected to the Commission as other nations.  The imbalance led advocates such as Human Rights Watch to describe the club as a “hostage to human rights abusers,” as nations seek membership in order to forestall official criticism of their actions.[2]  This trend appeared to receive further confirmation in Libya’s election as chair of the Commission in 2003,[3] and the recent re-election of Cuba after the Castro regime’s crackdown on dissenters and independent journalists.[4]

This report surveys the history of the Commission on Human Rights and the human rights records of its members.  It reaches the following conclusions:

Reform to the council is therefore urgently needed, before the Commission’s becomes better known for hiding and prolonging abuses rather than identifying and correcting them.  The Commission must not become a further constraint on the individual freedoms it was meant to protect.


2.  Background

Founded in 1946 under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights—often referred to as the “Human Rights Commission” (HRC)—is the U.N.’s primary mechanism of monitoring compliance with international human rights covenants.  Fifty-three nations send representatives to the Commission every year.[5]  Commission members are nominated by regional groups and then elected by the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to fill open seats.[6]  There are no external criteria for membership, not even compliance with Commission inspectors.[7]  One third of the Commission’s membership is chosen each spring, and the successful candidates commence their three-year terms the following year.[8]  Given that the selection procedure for 2003 membership, say, can only take into account the candidate’s behavior as of 2002, this report will often compare human rights records to “lagged” or “next-year” membership, in order to assess whether a country’s human rights status serves as a predictor of its accession to the Commission or its continued membership.

As an indicator of a government’s respect for or denial of human rights, this study will make use of the ratings produced by Freedom House, a non-profit research and advocacy organization also founded by Eleanor Roosevelt.  Since 1972, it has assessed the political and civil liberties of 201 different countries and territories, judging the degree of repression on a seven-point scale and averaging them to produce an annual index of liberty.[9]  This continuous series of ratings provides a means of comparing human rights records across nations and over time.  For the purposes of this study, the data are divided into individual “country-slices,” assigning information on civil and political liberties as well as Commission membership to every represented nation every year.  The dataset (in SPSS and Excel format) may be found at http://www.stevesachs.com/papers/hrc-data.zip.


3.  Findings

Concern over the Commission’s membership is not a new phenomenon.  In 1977, Uganda—described at the time as a “state-become-slaughterhouse”—was elected to the Commission, despite estimates that Idi Amin’s regime had killed approximately 100,000 Ugandans in seven years.[10]  More recently, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a member of the Commission during the Anfal genocide campaign of 1987-1988, which included the chemical attacks on civilians at Halabja and Goktapa.[11]  Iraq was subsequently re-elected to an additional three-year term starting in 1990.

For most of its history, however, the Commission has been composed primarily of nations with a high regard for human rights.  As Figures 2 and 3 show, the ratings of the average Commission member have traditionally tracked those of nations in general, and have shown a statistically significant superiority to those nations that are not represented on the Commission.

Fig. 2—Average Liberty Score by Commission Membership, 1972-2002


Fig. 3—Mean Liberty Score by Commission Membership, 1972-2002


Starting in 1999, however, the trend reversed; the human rights ratings of Commission members worsened, while those of non-members were improving.  This trend was not a general one, however; it was specifically limited to nations at the worst end of the scale.  Comparing the distribution of lagged representation by liberty score for the entire period and for 2002 only, it is clear that the increase in representation is concentrated in the most repressive regimes.

Fig. 4—Commission Representation (Lagged) by Average Liberty Score, 1972-2002


Fig. 5—Commission Representation (Lagged) by Average Liberty Score, 2002


Looking specifically at the representation of these most repressive regimes (those with an average liberty score of 7.0 in the Freedom House ratings), we see in Fig. 6 that it has since 2000 exceeded that of all nations as a whole, and has reached a peak well above any level in history.

Fig. 6—Commission Representation (Lagged) of Most Repressive Regimes, 1972-2002


In fact, the imbalance of the past three years is large enough to attain statistical significance below the 0.05-probability threshold, as is shown in Fig. 7.

Fig. 7—Commission Membership (Lagged) of Most Repressive Regimes, 2000-2002


As is clear from Fig. 7, while only 26.6% of all nations received Commission membership in the next year, the representation rate for the most repressive regimes was 45.2%.  Thus, an individual abuser was 69.9% more likely than the average nation to gain a seat.  A terrible human rights record therefore now serves as an actual predictor of Commission membership, one that is not (with 95%+ confidence) due to random chance.


4.  Potentially Mitigating Factors

Before concluding that the apparent over-representation shows an unprecedented trend, it is necessary to consider some factors that might potentially argue against that conclusion.  For instance, as could be seen from Fig. 6, there was only one other period when the (lagged) composition of the Commission substantially favored the most repressive regimes, between 1990 and 1994.

However, the imbalance here can be at least partially explained by exogenous factors.  In 1992, the council’s membership was expanded from 43 to 53, with the expansion taking place primarily in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—increasing membership across the board, but especially in regions with a higher concentration of unfree regimes.  As a result, it should be expected that such regimes would enjoy a temporary boost in their representation.[12]  This expansion helps explain why the imbalance would be highest in 1991 (membership being lagged by a year) and would diminish by 1994, when the new members’ (lagged) terms of office would be expiring.  The imbalance in 1990 can also be partly explained by changes in membership as well; in 1991, a number of former Soviet republics gained independence, none of which were commission members or were rated among the most repressive regimes.  This had the effect of depressing the representation statistics for nations as a whole, while increasing those of the worst abusers.  However, no similar factors are at work in the current increase, which has taken place without any official change to the membership or composition of the Commission.

Moreover, this result is robust enough to withstand weighting the cases by regional distribution.  Given that Commission members are elected by regional groups, one might expect the representation of repressive regimes to be affected by their geographical distribution.  For instance, if a certain region contained a higher proportion of abusers than others, this imbalance would then be transferred to the nominations and voting pool for Commission membership, and the proportion of abusers on the Commission might be higher solely by random chance.  To correct for this possibility, the data were weighted to reflect the fixed geographical distribution of Commission members without increasing the total number of cases (so as to avoid influencing calculations of significance).  The results are contained in Figs. 8 and 9, and show that the over-representation of the past three years is still a significant trend.

Fig. 8—Commission Representation (Lagged) of Most Repressive Regimes, 1972-2002 (Weighted)


Fig. 9—Commission Representation (Lagged) of Most Repressive Regimes, 2000-2002 (Weighted)


5.  Future Effects

Given that the over-representation is real, what effects does it have?  Defenders of the Commission might claim that involving repressive regimes on the council tends to improve their records, by focusing attention on their human rights practices and bringing them into closer relationships with their less repressive peers.  At first glance, this claim seems implausible—Cuba and Libya have the opportunity for diplomatic contact with free nations outside the Commission, and regimes would not seek nomination in such numbers if they expected it to increase the pressure for change.

Yet the improvement argument can find some support in the data.  According to Fig. 10, among the most repressive regimes, Commission members appear to have a higher level of improvement (i.e., a greater fall in their liberty scores) than do nations that are not on the Commission, a difference that is significant over a five-year timeframe.

Fig. 10—Liberty Improvement of Most Repressive Regimes by Commission Membership, 1972-2002 (Weighted)


There are two reasons, however, why this result should not be taken to establish a link between Commission membership and subsequent improvement.  First, this analysis by necessity excludes any data for the nations currently on the Commission, because we do not yet know what their human rights record will be in five years.  There is reason to expect that the formation of an “abusers’ club” on the Commission would tend to protect itself from outside criticism more effectively than any single member could.  Indeed, when one examines the period 1990-1994, the last time that the most repressive regimes were substantially over-represented on the Commission, one finds no significant positive trend.  In fact, there is evidence that Commission members may show less improvement than regimes which have not been given seats, and that the Commission thereby inhibits progress on human rights.

Fig. 11—Liberty Improvement of Most Repressive Regimes by Commission Membership, 1990-1994 (Weighted)


Second, the five-year improvement found over the entire period may be a mere artifact of the data.  Fig. 12 shows the average five-year improvement of repressive regimes over time:

Fig. 12—5-Year Liberty Improvement of Most Repressive Regimes by Commission Membership, 1972-2002 (Weighted)


As can be seen from the graph, there are two periods when the improvement of Commission members substantially outpaced that of repressive regimes as a whole; the late 1970s (peaking in 1978), and the mid-1980s (peaking in 1986).  The first peak can be entirely explained by the fact that Uganda was one of the two 7-rated regimes on the Commission during this period, and Idi Amin was removed from power in 1979.  This resulted in significant improvements to Uganda’s human rights ratings that had, it is safe to say, nothing whatsoever to do with Uganda’s previous membership of the Commission.  Similarly, in 1986, the worst-rated Commission members were Belarus, Bulgaria, the U.S.S.R., and Ethiopia, the first three of which saw substantial improvements in liberty five years later in the fall of the Soviet Union.  Thus, the apparent improvements for Commission members are best understood, not as an effect of Commission membership, but as an artifact of the data.


6.  Conclusions

According to the assessment given above, the most repressive regimes in the world currently enjoy a highly inflated rate of representation on the Human Rights Commission.  This over-representation cannot be explained by a change to the Commission’s structure, or the geographic distribution of Commission seats among regions.  Moreover, there is no reliable evidence that Commission membership leads regimes to moderate their repression; indeed, the last time such an over-representation occurred, it was marked by the failure of Commission members to improve at the same pace as as those denied seats.

In this light, it is difficult to disagree with the assessment of Human Rights Watch that “a country's human rights record should be the single most important factor in whether or not it joins the commission.”[13]  Unfortunately, the trend towards an “abusers’ club” on the Commission does not show any sign of abating.  The Commission’s new or re-elected members for 2004 include Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—and Bahrain, China, Sudan, and Zimbabwe will be retaining their seats.[14]

When considering unfree nations, we should be concerned not only by the significant trend indicating their over-representation.  Instead, we should remain concerned so long as there is no significant trend against their representation—indeed, so long as any repressive regimes retain the international stature and the protection from criticism that Commission membership provides.  The Commission was intended by its founders to protect the liberties of individuals; it must not include among its members regimes that are committed to their denial.


[1] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/2/chrintro.htm.

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Rights Commission Shields Abusers” (April 26, 2002), http://hrw.org/press/2002/04/unhchrfinal.htm.

[3] Libya’s election provoked strong criticism by the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders (“Reporters Without Borders Stages Protest at Meeting of Human Rights Commission,” March 17, 2003, http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=5137).

[4] See Associated Press, “Castro Defends Crackdown on Dissenters,” April 13, 2003, http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,1280,-2557890,00.html; “Changing the U.N.,” Washington Post, May 2, 2003, p. A22 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A8028-2003May2.html).

[5] The U.N. has made data available on the Commission’s membership from 1947 to the present; see http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/2/chrmem.htm. The U.N. website lists certain historical data for member nations under their current names. “Russian” membership of the Commission before 1991 will therefore be interpreted as that of the U.S.S.R.; “Germany” pre-1990 will be interpreted as West Germany, and “Zaire” will be interpreted as the predecessor to the Democratic Republic of Congo (with its capital at Kinshasa).  Data on 2004 membership can be found at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2003/ecosoc6045.doc.htm.

[6] Commission membership is allocated among five regions:  Africa (15 members), Asia (12), Latin America and the Caribbean (11), Central and Eastern Europe (5), and the “Western Europe and Others Group” (WEOG) (10).  Nations that have previously served on the Commission are listed under their regional classifcation on the U.N.’s website.  The 80 remaining nations in the Freedom House data were assigned region codes for this study based on their presumed geographical location (Albania, Andorra, Antigua & Barbuda, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Belize, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Croatia, Turkish Cyprus, Djibouti, Dominica, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Estonia, Georgia, East Germany, West Germany, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Kiribati, North Korea, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Macedonia, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Moldova, Monaco, Namibia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Samoa, San Marino, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & Grenadines, Suriname, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tonga, Trinidad & Tobago, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, U.S.S.R., United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Yemen, North Yemen, and South Yemen).  The ten Pacific island nations (Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu) were assigned to the WEOG region.

[7] Maryanne Bird, “Battle Lines on the Human Rights Front,” TIME Europe, June 20, 2003, http://www.time.com/time/europe/la/printout/0,9869,451426,00.html.

[8] For additional details, cf. Testimony of William B. Wood, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, Has the U.N. Commission on Human Rights Lost its Course?  A Review of its Mission, Operations, and Structure:  Hearing of the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, 107th Cong. 24 (June 6, 2001), available at http://www.house.gov/international_relations/107/72976.pdf, p. 19.

[9] For more information on Freedom House’s rating system, see http://freedomhouse.org/research/freeworld/2000/methodology.htm.  A Microsoft Excel file containing Freedom House’s ratings from 1972-1973 to 2001-2002 may be found at http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/freeworld/FHSCORES.xls.  Scores for 2002-2003 may be found in Appendix A of the Freedom House publication “The World's Most Repressive Regimes 2003” (http://www.freedomhouse.org/research/mrr2003.pdf), pp. A1-A3.
From the U.N.’s founding to 1990, Belarus and Ukraine were considered independent members and could sit on the Commission and other bodies, although their actions were always dictated by Moscow.  The two nations are therefore assigned the human rights ratings of the U.S.S.R. from 1972 to 1990; their own Freedom House ratings begin in 1991.
Freedom House also includes the following notes in its data:

[10] Richard H. Ullman, “Human Rights and Economic Power,” Foreign Affairs 56:3 (April 1978), pp. 529-543, 529.  According to Ullman, Uganda was able to avoid the international censure visited upon South Africa in part because of its Commission seat:  “Previously, in March 1977, the U.N. Human Rights Commission—on which Uganda sits—shelved a proposal that it should conduct an investigation into Ugandan conditions” (530).  I am grateful for the reference to David Adesnik of Magdalen College.

[11] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Great Terror,” The New Yorker (March 25, 2003), http://newyorker.com/fact/content/?020325fa_FACT1.

[12] The expansion of the early 1990s was mandated by ECOSOC Resolution 1990/48 (May 25, 1990) (gopher://gopher.un.org:70/00/esc/recs/1990/48), pursuant to General Assembly resolution 44/167 (Dec. 15, 1989) (http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/44/a44r167.htm).

[13] “U.N. Rights Body Admits Abusive Members,” May 3, 2003, http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/05/unvote0503.htm.

[14] U.N. Economic and Social Council, “Economic and Social Council Elects Members of Human Rights Commission, Other Subsidiary Bodies,” April 29, 2003, (http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2003/ecosoc6045.doc.htm)