Andrea Worden, April 9, 2018
During the past year, China, supported by authoritarian allies like Russia, Turkey and Egypt, has taken an increasingly aggressive anti-human rights posture at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) and elsewhere in the UN system where human rights are a core focal point. Its aim appears to be nothing less than “disappearing” the existing human rights framework –– one of the UN’s three pillars established by the UN Charter — from the mission and work of the UN, and replacing it with a Chinese version that focuses almost exclusively on “the right to development,” “dialogue” and “mutually beneficial cooperation.” China hasn’t won yet, but it’s seizing the moment of the Trump presidency, Brexit, the rise of authoritarianism globally, and Xi Jinping’s elevation as “president for life,” to push its agenda at the Human Rights Council with an unprecedented pace and boldness.
China’s first-ever HRC resolution, titled “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights,” was adopted by the Council in June 2017. I discuss this resolution in China Pushes ‘Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN. On March 23, 2018, the HRC adopted China’s second resolution, titled “Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights” (hereinafter “MBC resolution”). The MBC resolution is almost mind numbing in its repetitive use of bromides and lack of any apparent substantive content. But, as with China’s June 2017 resolution, more is going on than meets the casual observer’s eye.
Despite the challenges facing the U.S. State Department and its human rights apparatus under the current administration, to its credit the U.S. called for a vote at the Human Rights Council (where most resolutions are adopted by consensus, without a vote) on both of China’s resolutions. The MBC resolution was adopted by a vote of 28 in favor, with 17 abstentions and 1 “no”–– the United States. The strongly worded Explanation of Vote issued by the U.S. sheds light on China’s motivation behind the MBC resolution, which echoes China’s aim in advancing its June 2017 resolution: the gradual disembowelment of the existing UN human rights framework.
In its explanation, the U.S stated:
“It is clear that China is attempting through this resolution to weaken the UN human rights system and the norms underpinning it. The ‘feel good’ language about ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ is intended to benefit autocratic states at the expense of people whose human rights and fundamental freedoms we are all obligated, as States, to respect. For these reasons, the United States is calling a vote and will vote against this resolution. We encourage other countries not to support this resolution.”
Noting that China’s resolution insists that governments be respected, the U.S. countered: “A call for governments that abuse their own citizens’ rights to be respected has no place in a forum dedicated to respecting and protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the individual.” It describes the resolution as an effort by China “to insulate itself from criticism of its human rights record by demanding ‘respect.’” The U.S. further stated: “The only way for any government to achieve respect is for that government to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Several of the abstaining countries criticized the resolution; Switzerland stated that the resolution contained “vague and ambiguous language that weakens fundamental human rights principles.”
There is only one paragraph in the two-page resolution that focuses on the human person as the subject of, and beneficiary in the realization of human rights. Otherwise, “mutually beneficial” appears to mean for the benefit of states only — that through “dialogue” and “cooperation” they will be spared any criticism on their human rights record. The introductory (preambular) paragraph, which reaffirms that “the human person is the central subject of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and consequently should be the principal beneficiary and should participate actively in the realization of these rights and freedoms,” was apparently added only after negotiations; this text is absent from an earlier draft of China’s resolution.
The MBC resolution effectively takes the individual out of the picture. China frames the realization of human rights as purely a matter for states, focusing solely, as Human Rights Watch put it, on “intergovernmental cooperation and dialogue rather than actual human rights violations or accountability for those [violations].” There is not even one mention of the word “individual” in the resolution, nor do the terms “human rights defender” or “civil society” appear. But “cooperation,” appears 19 times, and the words “mutually” or “mutual,” are mentioned 13 times, “dialogue” makes 6 appearances, and “constructive” is used 5 times.
The sole nod to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the resolution – that NGOs should also “contribute actively” to “promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights” — rings hollow in light of the Chinese government’s relentless crackdown on NGOs and human rights defenders at home and at the UN.
Like China’s June 2017 resolution on “the contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights,” the MBC resolution also contains one of the key mottos of Xi Jinping’s “New Era.” The MBC resolution states: “Recognizing the importance of fostering international relations based on mutual respect, fairness, justice and mutually beneficial cooperation, with the aim of building a community of shared future for human beings, in which human rights are enjoyed by all.” [Emphasis added.] It was this hollow phrase, with uncertain meaning, that an earlier Chinese government statement extolled as demonstrating “China’s growing influence and ability to set the agenda in international human rights governance.”
On March 11, 2018, shortly before the MBC resolution was adopted in Geneva, China’s National People’s Congress in Beijing adopted proposed amendments to the PRC Constitution, one of which enshrined the slogan “building a community of shared future for human beings” in the preamble. In the statement explaining its “no” vote, the U.S. addressed the inappropriateness of the slogan’s appearance in a UN resolution:
“Furthermore, Chinese spokespersons in Beijing . . . have been clear about their intent to glorify their head of State by inserting his thoughts into the international human rights lexicon. None of us should support incorporating language targeting a domestic political audience into multilateral settings. This is especially true as the term has no clear meaning internationally and is vulnerable to subsequent interpretation and reinvention by the one country that uses the phrase.
At a daily news briefing on March 26, 2018, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying disingenuously overstated the significance of the resolution’s adoption, but made clear the Chinese government’s intent. She said, “The international community has reached an important consensus that only through dialogue and cooperation can the human rights cause of all countries be better promoted and protected.” [Emphasis added.] The MBC resolution does not say “only”; nevertheless, the resolution might be viewed as bringing China one step closer to its goal of “only dialogue and cooperation” in the field of human rights.
Hua Chunying further stated: “I think the comments by this U.S. official in Geneva . . . were extremely unreasonable, and also reflects the consistent ignorance and haughtiness of the U.S. side.”
China will have its third Universal Periodic Review in November. An earlier draft of the MBC resolution reveals China’s vision of how it thinks that review should unfold: without criticism and without any consideration of the Chinese government’s actual human rights record. An earlier draft of its resolution provided that the HRC “recognizes the crucial role of the Universal Periodic Review in contributing to the advancement of mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights…”
This paragraph in the resolution as adopted, following negotiations, reads: “Emphasizes the importance of the universal periodic review as a mechanism based on cooperation and constructive dialogue with the objective of, inter alia, improving the situation of human rights on the ground and promoting the fulfillment of the human rights obligations and commitments undertaken by States…” [Emphasis added.]
It’s incumbent on the U.S. and those states that abstained on the MBC resolution vote to make China’s Universal Periodic Review count — for the sake of the countless victims of human rights abuses in China, and for the human rights defenders in China who are working at great personal risk to protect and promote human rights on the ground. Wang Quanzhang, Liu Xia, Tashi Wangchuk, Ilham Tohti, Huang Qi, among many others, should be named, and Liu Xiaobo, Li Baiguang, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, and Cao Shunli remembered. We must do what we can to prevent China from turning its upcoming Universal Periodic Review into a victory celebration for “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”
Andrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.
Follow her on Twitter @tingdc
Also by Andrea Worden:
China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN, Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017.
As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders, Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018.
The Cost of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms, Human Rights Watch, September, 2017.