China's U.N. Diplomacy Is a Dangerous Joke

Zhang Jun (C), procurator-general of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, attends the second plenary session of the National People’s Congress, Beijing, China, May 25, 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The Chinese Communist Party’s strategy at international organizations has, especially in recent years, been a strategic success, a trend made apparent during the opening debate of the U.N. General Assembly last month. As I explained in a recent piece, the world’s democracies have underestimated the Chinese delegation’s capabilities, in part because it has made some contributions that have been lauded by those within the U.N. system.

But an episode yesterday at the General Assembly suggests an additional reason that we’ve underestimated the CCP’s diplomatic maneuvering: Its approach is often to work with the world’s worst human-rights offenders to posture in defense of, well, human rights. These regimes have learned that there is strength in numbers as they attempt to make some ridiculous claims.

China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, presented a letter to a committee of the General Assembly on Monday, signed by 25 other countries, condemning human-rights abuses committed by the United States and its Western allies. Among the signatories were Cuba, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Russia, Venezuela, and Syria.

The complaints contained in the letter are threefold. First, it argues that “unilateral coercive measures” (sanctions) are illegal under international law and that they “undermine the right to health, as they incumber access to medicines and medical technologies, equipment, and supplies.” [sic]

Then, it proceeds to make two points about the treatment of minorities and migrants in the United States:

Almost twenty years after the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, instances like the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake continue to take place and vulnerable people continue to suffer or lose their lives to racism and police brutality. Such instances are a reminder that chronic and deep-rooted racial discrimination, police brutality and social inequality still exist. The COVID-19 mortality rate of minorities, in particular people of African descent, is disproportionately high in some countries.

We also express our deep concern over the health situation of migrants at immigration detention centers in certain countries that reflects a contemporary form of racial discrimination.

These expressions of concern come from a regime that operates an industrial-scale detention and forced labor program — a genocide — in addition to, obviously, a number of other egregious human-rights abuses. The Chinese delegation’s latest publicity stunt can only be taken as a sick joke — one cracked by one of the most profoundly racist regimes in human history. It’s a joke that’s also been exposed by the 39 countries that today signed onto their own letter condemning the situation in the Xinjiang region.

And yet: This only goes to show that even when the CCP scrapes the bottom of the barrel at the U.N., it can dredge up support from over two dozen additional serial rights abusers. While they might be sidelined at other international fora, many of them play an active role in the U.N. system — and several signatories to this letter, including China, are set to win election to the U.N. Human Rights Council next week.

There’s an even more insidious element at play here: In its letter, the Chinese delegation cited a U.N. General Assembly resolution on the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic to support its argument about sanctions:

We also welcome the recently adopted General Assembly resolution entitled “Comprehensive and coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, which strongly urges States to refrain from promulgating and applying any unilateral economic, financial or trade measures not in accordance with international law and the Charter of the United Nations.

This language was added to an otherwise apolitical resolution calling for international cooperation on the pandemic at the last moment by the Cuban delegation. Its addition was one of the reasons that the United States voted against it — and was one of only two countries to do so (Israel also voted No).

Many observers have a habit at looking at ridiculous U.N. General Assembly resolutions as wholly inconsequential; they are, after all, legally non-binding. But their consequences can be severe, lending a semblance of legitimacy to CCP claims on the international stage, no matter how farcical those assertions sound.

To a domestic American audience that can mostly see through the smokescreen, the irony is self-evident. But such resolutions and letters do matter on the margin, and should continue to be opposed — at the very least, on principle — at every possible juncture.

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