Sins of Commission? Understanding Membership Patterns on the United Nations Human Rights Commission

By Edwards, Martin S.; Scott, Kevin M. et al. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Sins of Commission? Understanding Membership Patterns on the United Nations Human Rights Commission


Edwards, Martin S., Scott, Kevin M., Allen, Susan Hannah, Irvin, Kate, Political Research Quarterly


A prominent liberal explanation for why states join international organizations is to advance norms that such organizations represent. The authors examine the patterns of membership on the now-defunct United Nations Human Rights Commission (now the UN Human Rights Council). In regions where democratic norms did not hold sway, members were elected to degrade human rights norms. Illiberal states sought seats to shield themselves or neighbors from censure by the Commission. As regions became more democratic, it became harder for states with poor records to be elected and easier for states with better human rights records to be elected.

Keywords: human rights; international organizations; United Nations

Following the creation of the new United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2006, attention is again focused on the UN as a defender of international human rights. International cooperation on human rights differs in important ways from international cooperation on other issues. Rather than creating rules to govern interactions between states, in the arena of human rights, states attempt to create codes of conduct for how states should behave vis-à-vis their own citizens. In addition to directly challenging state sovereignty by codifying rules of behavior, international cooperation on human rights carries little material benefit. As a result, international human rights organizations are weaker than their economic counterparts. Examining the challenges that confront human rights organizations raises broader questions about the nature of state interest in human rights and the international organizations that promote those rights. Is that interest sincere or strategic? What motivates states to seek membership in international human rights organizations like the Human Rights Council's predecessor organization, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR)?

Previous research has examined which governments are targeted for sanction by the UNCHR (Lebovic and Voeten 2006b), but these decisions are likely to be shaped by the preferences and motivations of the states already elected to that body. Did states initially pursue membership on the Commission to strengthen norms of human rights internationally? Or did they seek to avoid accusations concerning their own behavior? Further complicating this membership selection issue is the fact that seats on the Commission were chosen by regional slates. Regional groupings of states may have varied in their criteria for selecting representatives, which would affect the nature of the decisions made by the Commission.

In this article, we investigate the relationship between a state's human rights practices and membership on the UNCHR, an organization that embodied the "procedural core of the human rights regime" (Donnelly 1989, 208). We find that states with particularly good and particularly poor records were elected to the Commission to either promote or inhibit its work, respectively. The regional nature of the selection process, however, plays an important modifying role. In more democratic regions, the states with comparatively poorer human rights records were less likely to be selected for the Commission. Rather, states with better than average records were more likely to be selected. The strengthening of liberal norms consequent with the post-cold war spread of democracy altered the Commission's composition. Our work thus supports the claims of scholars that find important links between democracy and the effects of human rights treaties (Neumayer 2005) as well as those who focus on the regional effects of democratization on human rights (Lutz and Sikkink 2000).

More broadly, we argue that scholars and practitioners who are concerned about the effectiveness of international organizations need to address the importance of membership criteria. The absence of membership criteria for the UNCHR had clear implications for its effectiveness, as states with poor human rights records were able to be members and shape its workload accordingly. …

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