Is China winning its fight against rights at the UN?

Few governments work harder to eliminate criticism of their human rights record at the United Nations than China. And China’s efforts may well make it easier for other abusive actors to escape scrutiny. Other governments — and the U.N. system itself — should push back against these encroachments.

The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has a widely-documented record of serious human rights violations. They include the crackdown on rights lawyers and activists that began in shortly after he assumed power in 2013 and the continued use of torture in police custody despite laws ostensibly intended to end the practice.

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This has not stopped China from working assiduously to weaken or block key human rights reviews at the United Nations, ease important standards, and ensure only praise for its rights record. Few, if any, senior U.N. officials broach the Chinese government’s human rights record when visiting China or meeting with Chinese leaders.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch exposed Beijing’s efforts to silence U.N. human rights experts and staff, to prevent critical voices from China from participating in U.N. processes, and to manipulate rules and procedures to ensure more favorable reviews. The net effect: weaker United Nations scrutiny, not just of China but of other abusive governments. One positive response is that the United Nations now reports annually on government reprisals against human rights defenders participating in U.N. human rights efforts; China has topped the list of offenders in every report issued.

In March, China introduced a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council, entitled “Promoting the International Human Rights Cause through Win-Win Cooperation.” The title might sound innocuous, but the resolution gutted procedures to hold countries accountable for human rights violations, suggesting “dialogue” instead.  

It failed to specify any course of action when rights violators refuse to cooperate with U.N. experts, retaliate against rights defenders, or actively reject human rights principles. And it even failed to acknowledge any role for the Human Rights Council itself to address serious human rights violations when “dialogue” and “cooperation” don’t produce results. The resolution was adopted by a distressingly strong majority.

In August, China was reviewed by the U.N. Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination, evidently hoping to slip through unnoticed. But  thanks to tough questions by committee members, particularly about China’s “Strike Hard” campaign in Xinjiang, where credible estimates suggest 1 million Turkic Muslims are arbitrarily detained in “political education” camps, Beijing has been forced to acknowledge that these camps exist.

And in early November, the Human Rights Council scrutinized China’s record through the Universal Periodic Review, a process by which all U.N. member-states review one another.  About two dozen countries helped prevent China from pulling off the whitewash it sought, instead vocally calling out Beijing’s mass arbitrary detention in Xinjiang, its glacial progress toward ratifying a key human rights treaty on civil and political rights, and its persecution and enforced disappearance of rights lawyers and activists. The countries that had the courage to stand up to China defended both the people in China who are enduring human rights violations, and the responsibility of the council to put China on the spot about those violations.

But the review was marred by the U.N.’s own complicity with China’s quest for a critique-free review. While accepting — seemingly without question — contributions from groups that praised China’s rights record, U.N. officials removed without explanation the submissions from Hong Kong, Tibetan, and Uyghur groups that are critical of Beijing. Many of the excluded contributions were reinstated at the eleventh hour, but the damage was done.

What’s at stake here? If the ideas proposed in China’s resolution, which only the United States voted against, become actual operating principles for the Human Rights Council, victims of state-sponsored abuses worldwide — including in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen — will face almost impossible odds in holding abusive governments accountable.

Instead, they’ll have to stand on the sidelines and hope their abuses are either ended or resolved through “dialogue” and “cooperation.” If the United Nations doesn’t vigorously support its own experts and processes when a powerful member-state is under review, or if the United Nations helps silence critical voices, rather than defend them, everyone’s rights are under threat.

The new U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, made waves when in her first speech to the Human Rights Council in September she called on China to allow access for U.N. investigators to Xinjiang. The U.N. Security Council, which will visit China later in November, has an opportunity to demonstrate support for the high commissioner, for victims of human rights abuses across China, and for the United Nations itself by echoing her call.

Sophie Richardson is the China director at Human Rights Watch.