Between Principles and Pragmatism: How African states vote at the UN Human Rights Council

by Hassan Shire, Executive Director of DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) and the Chairperson of AfricanDefenders (the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network), based in Kampala, Uganda and Nicolas Agostini, Representative to the United Nations for DefendDefenders By invitation, Human Rights Council membership, Human rights institutions and mechanisms

What would a comprehensive analysis of the voting record of African states at the UN Human Rights Council look like?

The question isn’t easy, but we hope that the answer DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders formulated will quench the thirst of those—diplomats, human rights advocates, or mere Council observers—who pay attention to the African Group… or worry about its voting patterns.

As African human rights NGOs, we watch what African states do in regional and multilateral fora closely. As the Council approached its 50th session, we realised that to date, no one had analysed their voting behaviour in a systematic manner. This is a shame given that African states occupy 13 of the Council’s 47 seats—over 25% of the Council’s membership.

With the report we just released, “Between Principles and Pragmatism” we filled that gap. We analysed, among others, how African states vote on resolutions and amendments; what initiatives they support and oppose the most; whether the behaviour of African states differs from that of other states; and whether there have been evolutions over time.

The report covers a total of 471 resolutions on which a vote took place since the Council’s creation, in 2006: namely, all 223 country resolutions and all 248 thematic resolutions that were put to a vote from HRC1 to HRC50. Furthermore, the report covers key amendments on which a vote took place. For each vote, we show how the 47 states that were members of the Council at the time of the vote voted, as well as the result of the vote for the African Group (13 states).[1]

The report relies on quantitative (statistical analysis and calculations) and qualitative methods to analyse voting behaviour and patterns.

We aren’t going to spoil the report (please read it!) here, but let’s flag a number of key findings:

  • Abstention is African states’ most frequent position on country-specific resolutions that are put to a vote, but when it comes to thematic resolutions, African states abstain much less.
  • Mass African support is only observed for resolutions addressing Palestine (or presented under item 7) and for thematic resolutions (African states are quasi-unanimous in their support to many thematic resolutions, covering a myriad of human rights issues).
  • Divisions within the African Group are observed for country resolutions, not for thematic resolutions.
  • African opposition to country resolutions has increased over time, but remains low; as regards thematic resolutions, it is only observed for sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).
  • The African Group often makes up a majority, in absolute numbers, of all abstentions, and it is under-represented in “No” votes to amendments.

African states’ voting decisions depend on multiple factors. We assessed and analysed determinants of vote to identify the most important ones. Among them: the country concerned by the resolution (African vs. non-African); the agenda item number under which a resolution is presented; the presence of condemnatory language in the resolution; and the consent of the country concerned.

Regarding country-specific resolutions, African states often find refuge in abstention. They are increasingly reluctant to vote “Yes” and, in recent sessions, a larger number of African states have voted “No.” Country resolutions are seen as more divisive and give rise to accusations of “politicisation,” “double standards,” “interference in domestic affairs,” and undue singling out of countries. In this context, African states often prefer not to pick a side.

Among the factors that make 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.

The report concludes that while 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 shift might not be for the better. In this regard, the 2021 “Yemen disaster” (which is attributable, to a large extent, to African states) 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.

[1] Its annexes can be used as a database of votes at the Council from its first to its fiftieth sessions (HRC1 to HRC50). Full versions of the Excel spreadsheets are available for download on the report’s page, on DefendDefenders’ website:

Full report accessible here

Cover photo: DefendDefenders

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