China & U.N. Human Rights Council: Beijing’s Dangerous Bid

Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland in 2018. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

The conditions that allow the Chinese delegation to run the table are structural.


he Chinese party-state is engaged in a years-long campaign to wipe out ethnic minority identities within its borders, to do away with the vestiges of democratic governance in Hong Kong, and otherwise to silence dissenting voices. But that would barely register if you followed these developments through the proceedings of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which convenes on Monday to begin a new session.

The council’s 47 members are granted two-year terms in annual elections, the next of which will take place in October. China, which has served four of these terms since the body’s creation in 2006, isn’t currently a member but will be a candidate this time around. It doesn’t take a human-rights lawyer to see the problem with Chinese membership of the body.

Each time the country seeks a seat, there’s a futile — but honorable — attempt by human-rights defenders to point out Beijing’s egregious record on these issues. The latest of these attempts came this past week, in the form of a letter signed by over 300 non-governmental organizations: “China has targeted human rights defenders abroad, suppressed academic freedom in countries around the world, and engaged in internet censorship and digital surveillance,” they wrote.

International pressure has mounted as the human-rights situation in China deteriorates. The Hong Kong crackdown brought one wave of criticism, as did new evidence of a population-control campaign in Xinjiang. The situation has become so dire that in June, dozens of U.N. human-rights experts called for an unprecedented special meeting of the council to discuss the human-rights abuses of the Chinese Communist Party.  This is an improvement over the silence that once reigned, but don’t count on that meeting to even take place.

The reason that China has been immune from meaningful criticism at the council is that non-democracies with abominable records have been allowed to run for election to the council, participate in debates, and even draft and vote on resolutions. Otherwise put, the world’s top human-rights organization often serves as an instrument that authoritarian countries use to further their power and shift attention from their own abuses.

Autocracies that band together for crucial votes are often numerous enough to get their way, as the Chinese delegation has recently proved. In the past couple of months alone, and against the backdrop of hardening Western attitudes toward the CCP’s conduct, Chinese diplomats convinced dozens of countries to sign letters backing Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Beijing has also leveraged this influence — bought, at least in part, with financial assistance to developing countries — to block politically bothersome votes. To this day, the U.N. Human Rights Council has never condemned any of the CCP’s myriad violations of human rights. However, during its most recent session, in June, the council did have time to hear from Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, who reassured the body that the national-security law imposed on the city the day of her address would not threaten its political freedoms. And it had time to consider North Korea’s concerns about racism in the United States.

The council also approved a resolution drafted by the Chinese delegation that promotes one of Beijing’s favorite slogans — it addresses “mutually beneficial cooperation” on human-rights issues. The document is full of diplomatic platitudes, masking subtler language that reflects the CCP’s view that it should not face international scrutiny for its crackdowns on fundamental rights.

The resolution — which was passed with some resistance put up by other members — shows just how the CCP is gradually entrenching its slogans in the international human-rights architecture. China clearly doesn’t even need current Human Rights Council membership to push its agenda. Although Beijing has always worked within the U.N.’s human-rights mechanisms to avoid condemnation of its actions, it’s done so much more vigorously under Xi Jinping, who has attempted to recast China as a defender of multilateralism.

That strategy has worked, at least to some extent. According to a Brookings Institution report, China first introduced a resolution at the Human Rights Council in 2017, then another in 2018, both of which “emphasized national sovereignty, called for quiet dialogue and cooperation rather than investigations and international calls to action, and pushed the Chinese model of state-led development.”

Beyond the UNHRC’s chamber, the Chinese delegation in Geneva has engaged in an aggressive campaign to intimidate dissidents who have the gall speak out against the party. The CCP does its best to prevent human-rights advocates from leaving China, but those who make it to Geneva are treated as if they’ve never left the country. Activists are drowned out by the objections of Chinese diplomats, they are photographed and followed around the halls of the U.N.’s offices in Geneva, and they’re harassed by staff from Beijing-backed “government-organized non-governmental organizations.”

All of this — the cajoling, diplomatic maneuvering, and intimidation — has given Beijing the upper hand in Geneva. Although the United States withdrew from the UNHRC in 2018, it has continued to participate in some of its functions and continued its criticism of China during review processes.

Washington would likely have a slightly greater ability to influence outcomes at the UNHRC if it were still a member — but China’s sway over non-Western countries is so great that it’s unimaginable that U.S. objections could meaningfully curtail Beijing’s influence there. The conditions that allow the Chinese delegation to run the table are structural. By returning to the body without preconditions, as Joe Biden promises to do, the U.S. would continue to legitimize the proceedings of a body that routinely and deliberately ignores the plight of those who live under many of the world’s dictatorships.

The liberal democracies that remain in the council do just that, and on Monday the farce of a human-rights organization dominated by dictatorships will pick up its work. Absent a coordinated U.S.-led push to reform the Human Rights Council — or to construct a better alternative — the CCP’s bid to redefine human rights and use international organizations for its authoritarian ends will continue unabated.

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