The US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council is a gift to China’s leader Xi Jinping.
Quitting the UNHRC won’t make it disappear. It opens a leadership vacancy that China is happy to fill. The Trump administration has stepped back to allow China the space to dominate the council unchallenged and advance its agenda to redefine human rights after the “China model.”
As Xi pushes his authoritarian agenda on the international stage while undertaking the worst crackdown on human rights since the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 back home, now is the time to stand up, not stand down.
For the first time, China successfully sponsored a resolution in the UNHRC in June 2017, on prioritising development over other human rights. Human rights are universal, inalienable, indivisible, independent, equal and non-discriminatory. Your right to economic development is equal to your right to freedom of speech; China’s resolution deliberately undermined that principle.
China followed that up with another resolution in March of this year, which focused on state sovereignty. It was widely criticised, with a UN expert calling it a “trojan horse” and the Swiss ambassador to the UN saying it “weakens fundamental human rights principles.” The US joined 12 other countries to vote no on the 2017 resolution but was the only country to vote against the March resolution. With the US quitting the UNHRC, it appears the last holdout in the resistance to “human rights with Chinese characteristics” has collapsed.
Outside the council chamber, China has deployed procedural and budget rules to “wage war” on UN human rights bodies, with tactics ranging from cutting funding for UN offices, blocking NGOs from receiving accreditation, all the way down to attempts to block individual activists from UN buildings in New York.
It is willing to take extreme measures. Chinese activist Cao Shunli died in detention in 2014 after being denied medical care because she tried to attend a council session and speak out about human rights abuses. China reacted angrily when NGOs tried to hold a moment of silence for Cao at the council. China’s behaviour at the UN is anything but rules-based, and this is just a taste of what’s to come.
Xi Jinping may say that China will be a “keeper of the international order,” but what he means is that it will keep the exterior of the institutions but get rid of the protection for human rights inside.
When China ran for re-election to the UNHRC in 2016, Chinese state media said its objective was to “actively declare China’s own human rights policy”. China’s senior diplomat in Geneva said earlier this year that China’s efforts at the council were intended to “smash the West’s monopoly on human rights”.
The UN Human Rights Council is flawed. Despite the downfall of its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, for the same reason, current members include some of the worst human rights abusers like China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. UNHRC Members are meant to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” but countries are elected by the UN General Assembly based on geographical distribution and mostly run unopposed. Demonstrable commitment to human rights is clearly not essential.
Despite its deeply politicised membership, the council is the only international platform for countries to address human rights violations. It appoints independent human rights experts who pull no punches in criticising states (such experts have raised concerns of rights violations in China 104 times in the past eight years).
The council has also appointed enquiries into North Korea, Syria, South Sudan, and Myanmar, credible independent investigations that can form the basis for prosecution for crimes against humanity. All 193 UN Member States equally go through a universal periodic review of their human rights record at the UNHRC. Even Israeli diplomats have expressed concern about the US’s departure.
The Human Rights Council has undoubtedly failed to live up to its founding principles. But a US working from within would do better to push for positive change and prevent further backsliding on human rights than sitting on the side-lines. The remaining UNHRC members must now work harder than ever to prevent China and other authoritarian regimes from undermining human rights standards and push for the desperately needed reform of the council.