U.S. Rights Council Exit: a Victory for China?

On Tuesday, the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Like its exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and President Donald Trump’s recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the development has been seen as a victory for China, whose long-running efforts to obstruct and coopt U.N. rights work may receive a substantial boost. Chinese Human Rights Defenders’ Frances Eve made this case in an op-ed at The Guardian on Friday:

The US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council is a gift to China’s leader Xi Jinping.

Quitting the UNHRC won’t make it disappear. It opens a leadership vacancy that China is happy to fill. The Trump administration has stepped back to allow China the space to dominate the council unchallenged and advance its agenda to redefine human rights after the “China model.”

As Xi pushes his authoritarian agenda on the international stage while undertaking the worst crackdown on human rights since the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 back home, now is the time to stand up, not stand down.

[…] The Human Rights Council has undoubtedly failed to live up to its founding principles. But a US working from within would do better to push for positive change and prevent further backsliding on human rights than sitting on the side-lines. The remaining UNHRC members must now work harder than ever to prevent China and other authoritarian regimes from undermining human rights standards and push for the desperately needed reform of the council. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin similarly commented:

Andrea Worden, who provided detailed accounts of China’s advocacy of "Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics" at the U.N. in a pair of essays at China Change, agreed concisely but emphatically with Chin. Amnesty International’s William Nee summarized "China’s subtle attempt to recalibrate the approach of the international system" at The Inkstone:

Most recently a controversial resolution put forward by China was adopted at the HRC session in March. [Background.] Human rights activists noted that core human rights language such as “civil society” or “human rights defender” was absent from the resolution, while the ambiguous phrase “mutually beneficial cooperation” appeared nine times.

[… I]n another signal of the Chinese government’s thinking, the Beijing Declaration, issued in December, explicitly stated that “the right to subsistence and the right to development” was a prerequisite for individual human rights.

It ignored the fact that the right to food and development are both individual and collective rights. Both are undermined if people cannot complain and organize to advocate for these rights.

Trying to pick and choose which human rights to respect, and restricting space for civil society organizations to advocate on behalf of those who have been harmed by states or corporations, simply ensures that victims are excluded from those who can enjoy the “mutual benefits” of China’s vision of international cooperation.

[…] With the now on the sidelines, it may be that much easier for China to assert its influence in the HRC. It is therefore more important than ever that other states from all regions ensure that the bar is kept high and standards are not undermined. [Source]

A statement from described the withdrawal as "self-defeating," quoting executive director Kenneth Roth’s warning that "other governments will have to redouble their efforts to ensure that the council addresses the world’s most serious human rights problems":

The Human Rights Council was created by the UN General Assembly in 2006 as the UN’s top human rights body. While it has its shortcomings – including the participation of persistent rights violators such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela – the council plays a vital role in addressing serious rights abuses around the world. It has initiated investigations into rights violations in Syria, Yemen, Burundi, Myanmar, and South Sudan, and addresses key topics such as migration, counterterrorism and protecting women, LGBT people, people with disabilities, and others from violence and discrimination.

[…] By forfeiting its membership in the council with almost 18 months remaining on its term, the US will be removing itself from key issues that could affect allied governments. No country has ever withdrawn from the council after running for election to secure a seat. It is unclear which country would take the open seat left by the US. The UN resolution creating the council provides that any successor would be another country from the group that includes Western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel.

While the US government’s engagement with the council has been uneven, the US has helped shape some of the body’s decisions with the greatest impact, including to establish a commission of inquiry into grave human rights violations in North Korea. The US withdrawal risks emboldening countries like China, and other actors that regularly seek to undermine UN human rights mechanisms. [Source]

Reuters’ Lesley Wroughton and Michelle Nichols surveyed other critical reactions:

“Given the state of human rights in today’s world, the U.S. should be stepping up, not stepping back,” [ chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein] said after Haley announced the U.S. withdrawal.

[…] Diplomats have said the U.S. withdrawal could bolster countries such as Cuba, Russia, Egypt and Pakistan, which resist what they see as U.N. interference in sovereign issues.

[…] Twelve rights and aid groups, including Human Rights First, Save the Children and CARE, warned Pompeo the U.S. withdrawal would “make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world.”

Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said Trump’s “misguided policy of isolationism only harms American interests.”

The EU said Washington’s decision “risks undermining the role of the U.S. as a champion and supporter of democracy on the world stage.” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it was regrettable and that the council was the “best tool the international community has to address impunity.” [Source]

The Washington Post’s Carol Morello highlighted the Trump administration’s rationale for the decision:

“I want to make it crystal clear that this step is not a retreat from our human rights commitments,” [U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley] said during a joint appearance with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the department. “On the contrary. We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”

[…] “When we made it clear we would strongly pursue council reform, these countries came out of the woodwork to oppose it,” she said. “Russia, China, Cuba and Egypt all attempted to undermine our reform efforts this past year.”

[…] Pompeo was scathing in his assessment of the council, calling it an “exercise in shameless hypocrisy, with many of the world’s worst human rights abuses going ignored, and some of the world’s most serious offenders sitting on the council itself.”

“The only thing worse than a council that does almost nothing to protect human rights is a council that covers for human rights abuses, and is therefore an obstacle to progress and an impediment to change,” he said. [Source]

Vice President Mike Pence presented the administration’s case on Twitter with a statement greeted skeptically by two prominent China-watchers:

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Haley wrote that the organization shared blame for the failure of reform efforts and the U.S.’ subsequent withdrawal, accusing it of having sided with China and Russia:

HRW’s John Sifton responded to Haley’s "offensive, sanctimonious, and childish letter" in a Twitter thread, arguing that her approach would have encouraged further Chinese and Russian manipulation of the council:

[…] Amb. Haley, you could have worked constructively with us and other institutions on reform. We all agreed on the council’s flaws. And as you were fully aware, a reform process for the Human Rights Council was already underway in Geneva. You could have worked with missions in Geneva on agenda consolidation and member pledges, as we and others repeatedly advised. But you tried to take a shortcut in the General Assembly. We advised against this, knowing you would not have necessary support there. And the risks: your approach would have inevitably led other states to propose destructive amendments that would have made things worse. Your approach would have led to an open season of tit-for-tat amendments, with China and Russia making the council even worse. As you know, China plays a long game, and would wait and come back next year with a hostile package, having worked to secure the votes. That’s how China rolls. That’s what we meant by Pandora’s box. Instead of attacking us, you should have been listening to us. But you insisted on a UN General Assembly approach. And when we voiced concern about this with other states you accused us of trying to sabotage you, while we were just doing our jobs. And now you accuse us of being with Russia and China, like a plot to undermine you. It is beneath you to make such a ludicrous allegation. The most honorable thing you could do right now is apologize. We stand ready to work together again to fix the UN Human Rights Council. [Source]

In addition to the attack on HRW, U.N. special rapporteur Philip Alston, who has repeatedly criticized Chinese reprisals against activists such as lawyer Jiang Tianyong, has said that American officials appeared to use the threat of leaving the Council to try to soften his scathing recent report on poverty in the U.S.. Haley described the report this week as "misleading and politically motivated," and "patently ridiculous." Read more on Alston’s grim conclusions from The Guardian.

In a thread on Twitter, another special rapporteur, David Kaye, responded forcefully to Haley’s description of the Human Rights Council as a "protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias." He concluded:

The response from China’s Foreign Ministry and state media, meanwhile, has so far largely been to contrast Beijing with Washington as "a devoted champion of multilateralism." From Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang at Wednesday’s press briefing:

Q: According to reports, on June 19, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley announced at the US Department of State that the US has withdrawn from the Human Rights Council. What is your comment?

A: China expresses regret regarding the US decision to quit the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The UNHRC, established on the mandate of the UN General Assembly, is an important venue for all parties to carry out human rights dialogue and cooperation and jointly promote the development of the human rights cause through exchanges and mutual learning. It is highly valued by all parties. As a devoted champion of multilateralism, China supports the concerted efforts made by the UNHRC and other mechanisms to promote and protect human rights worldwide. We will continue to work with all parties and contribute to the healthy development of the international human rights cause through constructive dialogue and cooperation.

[…] Q: With regard to the US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, the US side called the council a cesspool of political bias and accused China and other member countries of human rights abuses. What is your response? […]

A: […] As I said just now, the UNHRC, established on the mandate of the UN General Assembly, is an important venue for all parties to carry out human rights dialogue and cooperation and jointly promote the development of the human rights cause through exchanges and mutual learning. It is highly valued by all parties. The US’ attitude towards the UNHRC has aroused dissatisfaction from most countries around the world. The US side knows it fully well.

The US pointed fingers at the human rights conditions in China and other countries. It is in total disregard of facts. It is impossible for people without prejudice to lose sight of the remarkable progress made by China in its human rights cause. [Source]

State media struck up the same tune:

And from an editorial at China Daily:

[… D]espite all the huffing and puffing by Haley and other US officials to justify the move, there is no hiding the fact that the timing of the announcement comes after the UN high commissioner for human rights criticized the US administration for separating children from their parents who illegally cross the border with Mexico, calling the practice "unconscionable".

[…] It might not be a bad idea for the US to step aside and reflect on its behavior for a while, rather than criticizing others.

Few, if any, would claim that the Human Rights Council — or indeed the United Nations — is perfect, but the Trump administration cannot expect the UN bodies to act only in support of its objectives. They are supposed to be forums in which all members can have their voices heard.

Yet such dictates have become a tiresome refrain of the Trump administration. We hear them every time the administration pulls the US out of a multilateral pact. From the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord, to the global compact on migration and UNESCO, as well as the Iran nuclear deal, the message is the same, the US is only willing to play with others so long as it gets to write the rules of the game as it goes along. [Source]

Meanwhile, China’s “difficult, troubling” behavior at the UNHRC reportedly continues: