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)

There are many reasons to take issue with Peter Beinart’s provocative New York Times piece calling for “international intervention” in the aftermath of the November election. One important question, though, stands out: Just who, according to Beinart, should do the intervening? To certify that the election was conducted fairly, he writes:

Democrats should spend the coming weeks working to ensure that this year’s O.S.C.E. observer mission — despite being banned from many states, especially in the Deep South — can do exactly that. Then, if Mr. Trump and his allies halt the counting of ballots, or disregard them altogether, Democrats should use the O.S.C.E’s report as evidence in an appeal to the same body where Ms. Tikhanovskaya made hers: the U.N. Human Rights Council.

They should also lodge a complaint with the Organization of American States, a regional organization that has pledged “to respond rapidly and collectively in defense of democracy,” and which in 2009 used that mandate to suspend Honduras after its government carried out a coup.

This is a mixed bag: The OSCE has since 2002 sent observers to watch U.S. elections — and in fact, the United States is a signatory to the 1990 Copenhagen Agreement, which permits parties to monitor each other’s elections. The presence of OSCE observers is an anodyne and well-established practice. By contrast, it’s doubtful that the Organization of American States has the institutional capacity (or legitimacy in the eyes of the American public) to do what this article suggests. What’s truly unfathomable, though, is its call for Democrats to appeal to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

It’s not entirely clear that the author is well-versed on how the council actually works. He invokes Malcolm X’s 1964 call for an investigation “into American racism by the U.N. Human Rights Council” — which was founded over four decades later. Malcolm X was actually referring to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which was replaced by the council in 2006, in large part because it elevated the voices of its human-rights abusing members.

Such an understandable slip-up can usually be overlooked, but here it cuts to the core problem with this argument: Today’s Human Rights Council has failed for precisely the same reason that the U.N. pulled the plug on its predecessor.

The 47 members of the UNHRC are elected to serve three-year terms in staggered, annual elections. If there are no surprises, following next week’s vote for the 2021-2023 term, Russia, Cuba, and China, to name a few of the leading candidates, will join Venezuela and the other notorious human-rights abusers and non-democracies that currently sit on the council. If an emergency session on the U.S. election were convened in late 2020, before the new members took their seats, dozens of authoritarian governments would still end up weighing in on the results. If such a session were to take place in 2021, with the new members, several of those governments would be reliable U.S. adversaries.

The irony of this situation was on full display in June, when, as Beinart notes, the council held an emergency session on race relations in the United States. One highlight came when North Korea (a non-member that nevertheless participated in the debate) called American racism “the world’s hottest human-rights issue.” The council eventually passed a watered-down resolution that called for an investigation into racism around the world.

An eventual UNHRC resolution on the U.S. election would be a similarly symbolic outrage. While the body would not be able to enforce any of its resolutions, its human-rights abusing members would still be granted the legitimacy of the U.N.’s platform to launder anti-American talking points. It should go without saying that it’s a bad idea to let any organization dominated by authoritarian governments adjudicate the results of November’s election.

Is this an outcome that worries Beinart? Perhaps not. He views an appeal of U.S. election results to international organizations as a way to deflate the myths that Americans tell themselves: “Today, many prominent Democrats remain enthralled by the very myths about American exceptionalism that Black activists have long challenged.”

However, given the sorry state of the U.N. Human Rights Council, the reluctance of party leaders to take such advice will be to their credit.

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