China has long faced accusations of interference with human rights work by and at the United Nations, including obstruction of inspections, intimidation of activists, and other suppression of civil society participation. In 2015 it mounted an unsuccessful attempt to allow countries to criticize NGOs anonymously during the U.N. accreditation process. The following year, it was part of a group of nations that blocked applications for U.N. consultative status by NGOs including the Committee to Protect Journalists. In May last year, citing the expulsion of a Uyghur activist from the U.N. headquarters in New York despite full accreditation, Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson wrote that Chinese rights abuses have threatened to “infect” the organization. HRW subsequently issued an extensive report on China’s efforts to obstruct and co-opt U.N. rights mechanisms.
These efforts continued last week, when the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a Chinese resolution on international cooperation by a vote of 28 to one—the United States—with 17 abstentions. From The New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce:
Without specifying any immediate action, it called for “a community of shared future for human beings” and “mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights” — words reflecting “the very purpose of the United Nations,” according to Yu Jianhua, ambassador for China, whose initiative it was.
Western officials and rights organizations, however, saw another purpose at work. They share deep concern about the wider intent behind those phrases, seeing them as tools in a developing effort to reshape international norms on rights and make the world a safer place for autocrats.
[…] “This is China stepping out of the shadows to play a more assertive role and to use its increasing leverage globally to get what it wants,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
[…] The resolution adopted on Friday appeared to double down on that objective. The first draft circulated by Chinese diplomats echoed language from the speeches of President Xi Jinping, extolling the merits of “win-win” cooperation and the importance of “forging a new form of international relations.” [Source]
“It is clear that China is attempting through this resolution to weaken the U.N. human rights system and the norms underpinning it,” Mack said.
“The ‘feel good’ language about mutually beneficial cooperation is intended to benefit autocratic states at the expense of people whose human rights and fundamental freedoms we are all obligated as states to respect,” he said.
[…] Mack, referring to Chinese spokespeople, added: “They have been clear about their intent to glorify their head of state by inserting his thoughts into the international human rights lexicon.”
“A true example of cooperation in promoting and protecting human rights would be for China to release citizens it has wrongly detained or to protect the right of religious minorities to freely practice their religion,” he said. [Source]
Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reported another “win” for China on Monday:
António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has quietly begun to dismantle a key cell within his office charged with ensuring that the international body’s sprawling political and humanitarian agencies promote human rights.
The move comes mere months after China, with the support of Russia and other critics of the U.N. human rights mission, led a successful effort in an obscure but powerful U.N. budget committee to block a request by Guterres to fund the cell, which was established in 2014.
The development is just one of the latest signs that Beijing and Moscow are gradually gaining ground in their geopolitical struggle against the West to roll back decades of advances on human rights at the U.N. But human rights proponents claim that the U.N. chief, as well as the United States and European countries, has done too little to resist the trend.
[…] “China is the real playmaker here. It has cleverly combined positive messaging over climate change and development with an increasingly uncompromising approach to limiting human rights,” says Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It can get away with this because a lot of diplomats view Chinese engagement at the U.N. as insurance against Trump walking away [from multilateralism].” [Source]
The funding of the office of the high commissioner for human rights in Geneva has also been cut. The current high commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, has announced that he will be stepping down this year and not seeking another term in the post, explaining to his staff that the lack of global support for protecting human rights made his job untenable.
[…] “The fifth committee has become a battleground for human rights,” Louis Charbonneau, the UN director for Human Rights Watch, said. “Russia and China and others have launched a war on things that have human rights in their name.”
“You can get a mandate for human rights work in the security council, but then Russia and China go behind the scenes to defund it,” Charbonneau said. “And the countries that pay lip service to human rights are not pushing back. But the question is are we going to let them win?”
“China has real political momentum at the UN now,” Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, said. “It is now the second biggest contributor the UN budget after the US, and is increasingly confident in its efforts to roll back UN human rights activities. It is also pushing its own agenda – with an emphasis on ‘harmony’ rather than individual rights in UN forums. And a lot of countries like what they hear.” [Source]
Human Rights Watch’s Geneva director criticized those countries which merely abstained last week despite vocal reservations about the resolution:
A failure of courage for each State which explained why #China’s “mutually beneficial cooperation” resn distorts internatnl framework – but only abstained. How can defenders in China have confidence you’ll stand with them, if you won’t stand agst a resn you know is wrong? #HRC37 pic.twitter.com/pZJFUpmMj3
— John Fisher (@JohnFisher_hrw) March 23, 2018
Focusing only on intergovernmental dialogue and cooperation, rather than actual human rights violations or accountability for those, is obviously a “win” for China, but it’s not clear who the other winner is. Certainly not victims of torture, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances. Certainly not many communities in the developing countries China claims to speak for – communities that deal with damaging, sometimes deadly, impacts of Chinese political and economic influence over their own governments. And certainly not the UN human rights system, which China has assiduously sought to weaken in recent years.
[…] China’s draft resolution fails to even acknowledge the Human Rights Council’s mandate to “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations,” and does not spell out any consequences when countries refuse to cooperate.
As written, China’s resolution is a win only for itself, and, if adopted, a serious loss for any country serious about human rights inside China and around the world. [Source]
Writing at The Diplomat ahead of the resolution’s adoption, former Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Miloon Kothari acknowledged the importance of the economic, social and cultural rights China has sought to elevate, but expressed concern at its methods and motivations in doing so:
First, this resolution privileges the sovereign state over people and communities, focusing on intergovernmental dialogue and cooperation as (per an earlier draft) “the only viable option” for multilateral engagement. It seeks to downplay and even discredit a vital pillar of the human rights framework and the Council’s mandate: accountability for violations and justice for victims.
[…] The concerns I have with this new Chinese led effort are not new. Last June, for example, China presented a resolution on the right to development that sought to frame this norm as the right to development for states, not for people and communities. Far from achieving its purpose of empowering vulnerable populations, when cast this way the right to development is used by states to justify major construction and development projects, which often trample the rights of the very populations the norm is intended to protect.
Add to this the fact that China has, in recent years, adopted a vocal and assertive role in a range of international spaces, and has put significant resources into two pillars of the UN – peace and security and development. The result could be, without swift action, a third pillar of human rights with a heavy-handed focus on dialogue and consensus, and a reduction in transparency and accountability. This is made even more disconcerting when we consider that this is advanced by China, a government regularly cited in the secretary general’s report as engaged in reprisals against human rights defenders at home and abroad. [Source]
At the International Service for Human Rights, former High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay wrote that the resolution, together with other recent developments, “fill me with worry”:
When I look at the course of events at the United Nations Human Rights Council now, I see national sovereignty being unambiguously asserted, and human rights violations and their victims swept under the rug. I need look no further than the self-proclaimed ‘responsible global leader,’ China.
[…] The draft resolution is just the latest of a series of attempts, by China and by other governments, to ensure that international human rights law is only as strong as individual national interests allow. What if 50, 40, 30 years ago, the international community agreed that apartheid was just a ‘South African national characteristic,’ and should be accorded respect and presumed a sovereign affair?
[…] I take a special concern with the resolutions handling of the Universal Periodic Review, one of the landmark tools I saw mature in my time with the UN.
This is a process that arose from consensus among all governments, China included, that no country is perfect and that all can benefit from constructive criticism of how they seek to meet their obligations to each other, and most important of all to their people. The resolution unfortunately downplays the end result we want to see from this review: genuine cooperation with the UN mechanisms, and real human rights improvements for people on the ground. [Source]
At The Diplomat, Ecuadorian NGO founder Juan Auz emphasized the value of U.N. rights institutions in defending indigenous rights amid a Chinese-led mining and drilling boom, and warned of their erosion by the resolution and other moves:
Despite the growing threat of encroachment by Chinese business and investment, the Ecuadorian government has thus far not only failed to meet its obligations to protect, respect and fulfill the human rights and environmental rights of its people, but they have done quite the opposite. Over the past decade, the government has embarked on a campaign of division and repression of civil society, featuring both the criminalization of protest and the forced closure of a number of NGOs, including those working to protect communities affected by these investments.
[…] And so, over the last couple of years, we have advocated before the UN Human Rights Council, sent communications to UN experts, and actively participated in Ecuador’s Universal Periodic Review. To our surprise, we found that these mechanisms were actually paying attention to what we were saying. They saw serious problems when the government and the corporations saw nothing more than economic opportunity; they saw human rights violations when our politicians and their private associates saw only the bottom line and listened only to shareholder demands.
[…] For human rights defenders in Ecuador, the result [of China’s resolution and the prospective weakening of U.N. rights institutions] could be disastrous. We came to the UN because it was the only space left for us; it is extremely worrying that, just as we start to see our work at the UN deepen, Chinese influence is slowly encroaching on even this international democratic forum. [Source]
At China Change last week, Andrea Worden described in depth how this encroachment has unfolded. Worden previously described Chinese efforts to coopt U.N. rights processes last October.
The Chinese government attacks human rights defenders (HRDs) – those who peacefully defend and promote human rights – on a range of fronts. First, and most critically, are the government’s attacks on HRDs at home. The relentless crackdown on human rights defenders has gone from bad to worse under Xi Jinping, and we can expect the downward trend to accelerate now that Xi is no longer constrained by term limits. While the resilience of China’s beleaguered HRDs is remarkable, their numbers are shrinking; a few prominent examples of HRDs detained, disappeared, or dead at the hands of the state include: Ilham Tohti, Liu Xiaobo, Tashi Wangchuk, Wang Quanzhang, Li Baiguang, and Cao Shunli. [This month marked the fourth anniversary of Cao’s death, and also saw the promotion to Minister of Justice of an official linked to her case.]
Second, China harasses, obstructs, and jails HRDs who attempt to engage with the UN human rights mechanisms. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report details the various ways the Chinese government interferes with civil society engagement at the UN, from restrictions on travel and detention (to prevent activists, as in the case of Cao Shunli, from traveling to Geneva), to reprisals and threats against family members of HRDs.
Third, and the focus of this article, China challenges the concept and even the term “human rights defenders” at the UN. With the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (Declaration) celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and China undergoing its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November, this is an important moment to press China on its utter lack of compliance with the Declaration. [Source]
Worden sees opportunity ahead, however, in China’s Universal Periodic Review in November, and in a General Assembly meeting to mark the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
A clash at last week’s rights council session further illustrated China’s efforts to silence activists. From the Associated Press:
Yang Jianli, a dissident in exile in the United States, was disrupted seconds into his remarks as he questioned the Chinese Communist party’s right to represent China at the UN body. Yang was invited to appear before the human rights council meeting by UN-accredited advocacy group UN Watch.
Chen Cheng of China’s diplomatic mission stepped in and insisted that Yang’s intervention “seriously affected the reputation of council, and it should be firmly opposed”.
Yang went on to cite events from decades of recent Chinese history, including the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the crackdown on the Falun Gong and democratic movements.
[…] Chen interrupted again, appealing to the chair to “rule against his speaking”.
[…] Tuesday’s conflict came during debate about the Vienna declaration and program of action, which says non-governmental organizations “should be free to carry out their human rights activities, without interference”. [Source]
Louis Charbonneau, Human Rights Watch’s United Nations Director, warned that rights groups and activists are in danger of being “frozen out”, citing the Committee to Protect Journalists’ treatment two years ago:
As governments worldwide shrink the space for civil society, it’s vital that the UN remain a forum where nongovernmental organizations can advocate for human rights and dignity, which the UN was created to protect. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said civil society is “a key element in solving global problems.”
ECOSOC should ensure swift decisions on nongovernmental organization applications and impose term limits for committee members. CBC news reported that Russia has been on the NGO Committee since 1946, while China, Cuba and Sudan have been on it for over 20 years.
Elections for the NGO Committee are set for April. Governments that value the role of nongovernmental organizations in promoting respect for human rights should seek seats. It’s essential that the committee become a body that works with, not against, civil society. [Source]
Late last week, U.N. rights experts reiterated earlier expressions of concern regarding imprisoned rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who last November received a two-year sentence for inciting subversion.
UN human rights experts are deeply concerned over the deteriorating health of Jiang Tianyong, a prominent human rights lawyer jailed in China for inciting “subversion” of State power.
“Mr. Jiang’s health has apparently deteriorated dramatically in recent months. He is reportedly weak and suffers from severe memory loss, and it is suspected that he may have been drugged,” the experts observed. “This raises fears of torture or ill-treatment in detention, without access to adequate medical care”. The experts urged that Mr Jiang be given urgent medical attention and that a full report on his health status be provided to his family.
The experts also noted that many of the nearly 250 lawyers and defenders arrested in an unprecedented crackdown in July 2015 remain in detention, and are often held incommunicado. “We appeal to the Chinese Government to provide the detainees at a minimum with access to their families, lawyers of their own choosing and adequate health care,” said the experts.
[…] The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, who met with Mr. Jiang during his visit to China in August 2016, has also expressed concern that his enforced disappearance may have occurred, at least in part, in reprisal for his cooperation with the UN during his visit to China. [Source]