Amid International Outcry, China Vies for U.N. Human Rights Council Seat

The United Nations General Assembly will vote next week for 15 seats on the Human Rights Council. The council consists of 47 countries, elected annually for staggered three-year terms. Members vie for seats within their regional grouping. After gaining a seat on the Consultative Group of the Human Rights Council in April, China is now running for a seat on the council itself. Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups urged countries not to elect China to the council:

“Serial rights abusers should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “China and Saudi Arabia have not only committed massive rights violations at home, but they have tried to undermine the international human rights system they’re demanding to be a part of.” [Source]

The call to oppose China’s election to the council came as a coalition of countries recently condemned China’s human rights record. Earlier this week, 39 countries denounced China for gross human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, and for curbing civil liberties in Hong Kong. Deutsche Welle reported that China responded angrily to the declaration, after reportedly being caught off guard by its level of support:

Beijing's anger was in part due to the fact that it had not anticipated such a surge in support for the declaration, according to a diplomat who spoke to DW on condition of anonymity.

Other officials, who also wished to remain unnamed, told DW that Beijing had not expected more than 30 countries to join and had begun a political pressure campaign to prevent countries from signing the statement.

In the end, 39 countries signed on to the declaration, 16 more than last year, with Bosnia and Herzegovina joining literally at the last minute. This was the result of weeks of lobbying by diplomats from Germany, the UK and the US, who clandestinely spoke to other UN states asking for their support. The list remained classified until minutes before Germany's UN ambassador Heusgen read the statement in New York, for fear signatories might be poached by China at the last moment. [Source]

Separately this week, China quietly withdrew a Human Rights Council resolution on “people-centered” approaches to human rights which was co-sponsored by seven other countries including Pakistan and Russia. The International Service for Human Rights opposed the resolution, writing:

Tabled under the title ‘People-centred approaches in promoting and protecting human rights’, the text is an agglomeration of disparate, largely innocuous concepts. The text seems to be a restatement of a widely-accepted concept - that inequalities and discrimination are major challenges to realizing all human rights for all - but does not go much further. It also draws heavily from a range of development-orientated General Assembly resolutions, exacerbating the lack of coherence.

Under normal circumstances, such a resolution may have flown under the radar or simply been approached with an eye to ensuring balance; in the current context, however, the resolution should be squarely rejected. [Source]

“People-centered approach” has become somewhat of a key buzz-phrase for Beijing in the last year. First coined in Asia late last century, the term “challenges the current human rights regime’s tendency to view rights as bestowed and guaranteed by the state and available as protection against state actors,” according to the Carnegie Council. More recently, the phrase has been used alongside an emphasis on economic development by Chinese diplomats and newspapers:

In an article published on Friday, China Daily named it as a “prominent feature” of Xi Jinping economic thought. A new focus on “people-centered policy” was also cited as a reason why China declined to publish a fixed GDP growth target this year

Ever since the outbreak of the pandemic, China has acted swiftly by issuing a set of supportive policies to support the economy and shore up growth. While a country's GDP growth is highly correlated with its economic prosperity and corporate profits, Beijing did not set a specific growth target this year given the immense uncertainties and acute challenges China is facing.

Instead, the authorities opted for a people-oriented policy approach which aims at ensuring employment, people's basic livelihoods, and the survival of businesses, especially private and smaller ones. The shift to a more pragmatic policy approach underscored the bottom-line thinking of the policymakers to safeguard the wellbeing of the people and society while winning the strenuous battle against poverty this year. [Source]

The withdrawal of the resolution is a noteworthy setback for Beijing. As Anne Applebaum wrote for The Atlantic this week, attempts to reframe the language around human rights is part and parcel of China’s attempts to remold the U.N. in its shadow

China seeks to change other kinds of language too. Instead of “political rights” or “human rights,” for example, the Chinese want the UN and other international organizations to talk about “win-win cooperation”—by which they mean that everyone will benefit if each country maintains its own political system. They also want everyone to use the phrase mutual respect—by which they mean that no one should criticize anyone else. This vocabulary is deliberately dull and pleasant: Who is against “win-win cooperation” or “mutual respect”? But the Chinese work extremely hard—tellingly hard—to get this boring language into UN documents, especially those that have anything to do with human rights. That’s because they want to water down any form of accountability, to anyone, for themselves and for other autocratic governments; to weaken the role of independent human-rights advocates; to prevent any public criticism of Chinese policy in Tibet or Xinjiang, where a majority of the country’s Uighur Muslims live; and to undermine the Human Rights Council’s already limited ability to investigate UN member states. [Source]

The Chinese government has made a concerted effort in recent years to increase China’s presence and influence in the United Nations. CDT reported last week about Beijing’s years-long campaign to strengthen its diplomatic clout, which has won it leadership positions in four of the 15 specialized agencies and groups in the U.N. For the Financial Times this week, James Kynge and Nian Liu wrote about China’s leadership of the U.N.’s telecoms agency, which has sparked controversy amid global concerns about Chinese telecoms giant Huawei:

Zhao Houlin is head of the UN’s telecoms agency, an independent international arbiter that sets some of the rules shaping the modern technology industry. But that does not stop him from letting his patriotism burst into the open.

A former government official in China, Mr Zhao has repeatedly lionised the Belt and Road Initiative, the pet project of Chinese president Xi Jinping to invest in overseas infrastructure. He has also defended Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecoms champion, against US accusations that its equipment can be used for espionage.

“Those preoccupations with Huawei equipment, up to now there is no proof so far,” Mr Zhao, who is secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, told reporters in Geneva last year. “I would encourage Huawei to be given equal opportunities to bid for business.” [Source]

Even if China fails to gain a seat on the Human Rights Council, it is all but assured that another major rights violator will win a seat. Just five countries are contesting the four available seats in the Asia-Pacific group, including China, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.

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