How China is redefining human rights on a global scale

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, opened the session of the Human Rights Council last week. Keystone / Martial Trezzini

To mark its 15th anniversary, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), based in Geneva, has become a battlefield for a showdown between the interests of the West and China.

This content was published on June 30, 2021 – 9:00 am

Jamil Chade, Geneva

The current meeting of the HRC with representatives from 47 UN member states was held on the 21st in the province of Xinjiang.

Bachelet expressed “serious concerns” about Hong Kong’s national security law and reiterated her call for access to Xinjiang, “especially as reports of serious human rights violations continue to emerge.”

Their remarks were rejected by China’s representative, who said Beijing would not accept “interference” by outside forces in what it believed to be inalienable parts of Chinese territory. Liu Yuyin also urged Bachelet to “respect the facts” and “stop making false remarks about China.”

Pointers and counter-allegations continued during the session, with an alliance of 40 countries led by Canada denouncing torture, human rights abuses and forced labor in China, particularly against Muslim minorities. China, along with allies such as North Korea, Belarus and Venezuela, struggled and used the forum to criticize Canada for both its inhumane treatment of immigrants and for violating the rights of its indigenous peoples.

The hard exchange was a reflection of a wider debate. On his recent European tour, US President Joe Biden made it clear that it was time for the allies in the West to unite and to push back against the growing influence of China in multilateralism. In recent years, China has presented or supported candidates for some of the key positions in UN agencies and international organizations such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

At the same time, Beijing organized an aggressive campaign to secure his election to the Human Rights Council.

“In part, this dominance of Chinese nationals in key UN agencies reflects Beijing’s skillful diplomatic maneuvers as a rising power and its position as the world’s second largest economy,” wrote Kristine Lee, Associate Fellow in the Center for New American Security’s Asia-Pacific Program on the Politico news site.

The Biden administration and Western analysts like Lee believe that China has used the US withdrawal from Donald Trump’s council as an opportunity to fill the vacuum that Washington has left.

“As Beijing seeks to convert the United Nations and other international institutions to its advantage, it leaves a global system that has been unbalanced by the lack of stable leadership in the United States.”

The US return to the HRC as an observer will in some ways be part of an attempt to stop China’s attempt to push its own agenda through global forums like the HRC. But it will be difficult to regain lost ground.

For many years, experts and diplomats argued that the integration of China into world markets and structures would force Beijing to uphold human rights. According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, the opposite has happened. “Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping in particular, the Chinese government is not only trying to neutralize the control of China by the UN human rights mechanisms,” the NGO wrote in a reportexternal link last September. “It also seeks to neutralize this system’s ability to hold any government accountable for serious human rights violations.”

According to the NGO, Beijing is no longer content with exempting itself from accountability, but is trying to strengthen the ability of other countries to enforce their right to the suppression of freedoms in international forums such as the HRC, even if these institutions appear to be Justice.

Strategy: introduce “cooperation”

However, the way to neutralize the UN institution is not to leave it. In 2018, Beijing supported a resolution on “mutually beneficial cooperation”. Cooperation, interpreted as such, means that country A respects country B in choosing the priority with regard to human rights. According to observers, this has become a powerful tool in convincing other countries to support the Chinese narrative on human rights and the resolutions proposed by Beijing.

The resolution was passed two years later by 23 votes to 16 with eight abstentions. Among those who supported it were many autocratic regimes, including Belarus, North Korea, Myanmar, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela.

Kazushige Kobayashi, a researcher at the Center for Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, says that despite the many disagreements among developing countries, China has successfully promoted the idea of ​​cooperation in the Council. “The concept of reciprocity was effective,” he says.

China’s influence among developing countries has continued to grow in recent years, according to a new survey published on June 30 by AidData, the international development research laboratory at the US University of William & Mary. The survey found that China stood by around 113 countries in word and deed in 2020 to become the eighth most influential development partner overall.

Kobayashi acknowledges that “China has taken a more active approach to human rights in its foreign policy in recent years, deviating from an earlier position that viewed the issue as an internal matter.

“In this process, China is trying to influence the human rights narrative like others are doing,” he argues.

Chinese observers, who refused to be named, said that China has a different concept of human rights than the West and that the concept should be understood under the dimension of sovereignty.

Beijing has understood how to use the Council to advance its views.

However, Human Rights Watch claims that China is trying to “reposition international human rights law as a matter of state relations, ignoring states’ responsibility to protect individual rights, treating basic human rights as a subject of negotiation and compromise”. , and sees no meaningful role for civil society ”.

In the language of the Chinese delegation, Beijing wants to “strengthen cooperation instead of creating division”.

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