Between Principles and Pragmatism
How African states vote at the UN Human Rights Council
In a report published today, DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders present a comprehensive analysis of the voting history, record, and behaviour of African states at the UN Human Rights Council.
“Between Principles and Pragmatism” is an evidence-based analysis of patterns of votes for African Group.
The report covers all votes on resolutions that ever took place since the Council’s creation, in 2006, namely from its 1st (HRC1) to its 50th session (HRC50).
“Between Principles and Pragmatism” is AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD HERE.
« Entre principes et pragmatisme » : VERSION FRANÇAISE BIENTÔT DISPONIBLE.
African states occupy 13 of the UN Human Rights Council’s 47 seats. This is over 25% of the Council’s total membership. Yet to date, no one has conducted comprehensive research on the voting record of African states and patterns for the African Group.
The present report fills this gap. It examines, among others, how African states vote on resolutions and key amendments; which initiatives they support and oppose the most; whether the behaviour of African states differs from that of states from other regional groups; whether there are differences within the African Group; and whether there have been evolutions over time.
Desk-based research enabled the gathering of information on votes that took place at the Council since 2006, on both resolutions and amendments (country-specific and thematic). For each vote, session reports and/or vote results available on the HRC extranet show how the 47 states that were members of the Council at the time of the vote voted.
The report covers all 223 country resolutions on which a vote took place (48 from 2006 to 2011, 64 from 2012 to 2016, and 111 from 2017 to July 2022). It also covers all 248 thematic resolutions on which a vote took place (69 from 2006 to 2011, 89 from 2012 to 2016, and 90 from 2017 to July 2022). In total, it covers 471 resolutions. In addition to these, the report covers key amendments that were put to a vote.
For each resolution and for each amendment, are shown the overall result of the vote (47 states) and the result of the vote for the African Group (13 states). We relied on quantitative methods (statistical analysis and calculations through Excel tools) to analyse data regarding African states’ votes and evolutions over time, as well as qualitative methods to analyse voting behaviour and patterns. We started with several hypotheses, which we tested.
Our main findings are the following:
Regarding country-specific initiatives:
- Abstention is African states’ most frequent position on country-specific resolutions that are put to a vote. African states are over-represented in abstentions. In the last period (2017-2022), African states massively abstained on country resolutions.
- Mass African support for country-specific resolutions is only observed for resolutions presented under the Council’s agenda item 7 or addressing Palestine.
- On many country resolutions that are put to a vote, the African Group is divided: while some African states abstain, others vote “Yes” or “No” or prefer not to take part in the vote.
- Percentages of “No” votes have increased over time. In recent sessions, more and more African states opposed country resolutions. On some of these resolutions, African states made up half or more of the total number of “No” votes. This is a new phenomenon.
- African states are also over-represented in abstentions on amendments to country resolutions. The African Group often makes up a majority, in absolute numbers, of all abstentions.
Regarding thematic initiatives:
- On thematic resolutions, African states abstain much less than they do on country resolutions.
- African states support many thematic resolutions and are over-represented in “Yes” votes. African states are unanimous or quasi-unanimous in their support to a significant number of thematic resolutions, covering a range of human rights issues.
- On many thematic resolutions, while other regional groups are divided, the African Group is cohesive. Despite making up only one fourth of the Council’s membership, African states frequently represent 35%, 40%, and sometimes 45% of the total number of positive votes on thematic resolutions. This is remarkable. Over time, however, more African abstentions (and even negative votes) have been recorded.
- Resolutions on minorities are an exception. They are the only category of resolutions for which mass African opposition is recorded. For the African Group, this is a clear and consistent position.
- When it comes to amendments to thematic resolutions, African states are over-represented in abstentions as well as in “Yes” votes. They are under-represented in “No” votes.
African states’ voting decisions depend on multiple factors. Our analysis shows that, in terms of factors and determinants of African states’ voting behaviour:
- African states, in general, prefer consensual resolutions over resolutions that are put to a vote.
- African states prefer thematic resolutions over country-specific resolutions.
- When a vote takes place, resolutions addressing human rights violations committed in African countries are the most challenging to support for African states (as opposed to resolutions addressing violations committed in non-African countries).
Regarding country-specific initiatives:
- The following factors/determinants of vote appear to be the most important: country concerned by the resolution (African vs. non-African); agenda item number; presence of condemnatory language in the resolution; and consent of the country concerned.
- African states are increasingly reluctant to vote “Yes.” They often find refuge in abstention. What’s more, in recent sessions, a larger number of African states have voted “No.” Country resolutions are seen as more divisive and as being at the centre of Big Power politics. They give rise to accusations of “politicisation,” “double standards,” “interference in domestic affairs,” and undue singling out of countries. They also give rise to heated debates, some states claiming to act on principle (based on objective criteria indicating grave human rights violations), others claiming that Council resolutions violate their sovereignty and are political. In this context, African states often prefer not to “pick a side.”
Regarding thematic initiatives:
- The following factors/determinants of vote appear to be the most important: general focus of the resolution; domestic constitution, laws, and/or cultural values; and presence of condemnatory language in the resolution.
- Among the factors making it easier for African states to vote “Yes” to thematic resolutions are the absence of mentions of specific countries, non-resort to agenda item 4, and the absence (or limited presence) of condemnatory elements.
- When a vote takes place on thematic resolutions, African states are less reluctant to “pick a side.” They usually vote “Yes,” even when opposition by other groups of states is significant. This is related to the fact that thematic resolutions give rise to less polarisation and fewer accusations of “interference in internal affairs.”
The report concludes that at the UN Human Rights Council, African states act in both principled and pragmatic (or calculative) ways.
First, they support human rights-based initiatives (including resolutions addressing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights), show consistency, and act as a leading force within the Council. They should be encouraged, however, to better study the implications and impact of some thematic resolutions.
Second, African states are also pragmatic. When they are not in a position to support country resolutions, they usually prefer to abstain. African states abstain more than states from other groups and more than the average Council member. This shows a hesitancy to use their full potential. Abstaining states leave it to voting states to determine outcomes. In this sense, African states’ political weight remains lower than their objective weight (the number of seats they occupy).
Last, African states occasionally contribute to undermining the Council’s work to promote and protect human rights for all; for instance, when they oppose minority resolutions or support initiatives that harm the international human rights framework, such as China-led resolutions.
In theory, the African Group can exert a great deal of influence on Council outcomes. In practice, its influence is only clear regarding thematic resolutions. Regarding country resolutions, it remains limited. Recent sessions may indicate a shift; unfortunately, this might not be for the better, as more and more African states oppose country resolutions. In this regard, the 2021 “Yemen disaster” came as a shock.
The future will tell whether collectively, the African Group can increase its influence over Council outcomes and whether outliers (positive or negative) emerge.
(also in print version)
All votes on resolutions (country-specific and thematic) on which a vote took place (HRC1 (2006) to HRC50 (July 2022))
African Group votes on country resolutions, with a breakdown by country concerned
African Group votes on thematic resolutions, with a breakdown by resolution theme
Votes on key amendments (country-specific and thematic) on which a vote took place (HRC1 (2006) to HRC50 (July 2022))
African Group votes on key amendments, with a breakdown by country concerned by, and theme of, the amendment
(also in print version)