The 2019 South-South Human Rights Forum: China Gathers Steam in Its Bid to Redefine the Concept of Human Rights

Andrea Worden, February 19, 2020

Thank you, China” –– these words were often said by participants of the South-South Human Rights Forum –– Xinhua, 12/11/19

The Chinese Party-state held the second South-South Human Rights Forum (SSHRF) in Beijing on December 10-11, 2019.  Underlying the 2019 SSHRF was the Beijing Declaration, a manifesto encapsulating China’s vision of a human rights order for the developing world, which was adopted at the inaugural SSHRF in 2017. The Declaration challenges the universality of human rights, takes the rights to development and subsistence as the fundamental human rights, and promotes the view that each country should find its own country-specific human rights path. The 2019 SSHRF appeared to focus on ways to actualize the Beijing Declaration and to continue building a consensus around China’s vision for global human rights governance. Front and center were the right to development, the Belt and Road Initiative, the “community of shared future,” and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2017 and 2019 Forums each had in attendance more than 300 officials, experts, and scholars hailing from scores of countries and international organizations.

 The 2019 meeting took place shortly after the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was signed into law in the U.S. and the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act passed in the House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, substantial vitriol was unleashed at “the West” ––the U.S. in particular, for “double standards,” interference in other countries’ internal affairs, and more. Both South-South Human Rights Forums were impressive displays of “home-based diplomacy” (Rolland, p. 47), where foreign officials and experts echoed the “correct” CCP discourse and concepts, and endorsed China’s positions and views. With the second SSHRF, China took another step toward consolidating support for its alternative human rights framework, which has development as its “core concept of human rights” while at the same time dismissing the “Euro-American centric notion of human rights.” In a short segment on CGTN’s “Dialogue” program, Tsinghua media studies professor Shi Anbin seemed eager to deliver this message, over and over again (@1:59, 3:39, 7:19, 9:43).      

Organized by the State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the 2019 SSHRF’s theme was “Diversity of Civilizations and Global Development of Human Rights.” Four parallel sessions addressed the following topics:

  • Path of Human Rights Development under the Background of the Diversity of Civilizations
  • Building a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind and Global Human Rights Governance
  • The Right to Development: The Belt and Road Initiative Promotes the Realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
  • The Practice and Experience of Human Rights Protection in the Countries of Global South

Compared with the 2017 SSHRF, the 2019 gathering seemed to have a clearer political agenda and external propaganda aim. A new feature was a “public diplomacy” tour that took place in advance of the Forum. Some of the 2019 participants (one article put the number at 100, but the accompanying photos suggest a smaller number) visited Shanghai and Hangzhou, which included a stop at Alibaba (where workers’ rights presumably were not on the agenda). Professor Shi Anbin told CGTN (@3:50) that this “public diplomacy occasion” was an opportunity for the foreign visitors to see for themselves how China has realized the right to development in recent years, so that “they can change their traditional Euro-American conception of human rights.” Describing the visit to Hangzhou on December 8 as a “familiarization tour,” the People’s Daily wrote: “Most of the delegates, especially those who are in China for the first time, were impressed by the convenience of the e-commerce and the country’s people-centric development and efforts to secure human rights.”

Chinese Party-state media reported on the SSHRF’s visitors’ impressions as well as their thoughts on China’s leadership on human rights for the Global South.    

  • Regarding the visit to Shanghai on December 7, Xinhua wrote that the visitors “were impressed by the prosperous and orderly development of the mega city.”
  • “I think China is becoming more open and confident about human rights. The changes I saw here are examples of the great improvements in the Chinese people’s rights to subsistence and development,” said Davina Sigauta Rasch, director of Corporate Service of the Ombudsman Office in Samoa, who studied international economics and trade from 2009 to 2013 at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.
  • Xinhua wrote, “[Rasch’s] idea was echoed by Lionel Vairon, CEO of CEC Consulting in Luxembourg and also a senior research member of the Charhar Institute, a private think tank in China. . . . [He said] “In the future, global governance must make a choice between the policy of strong-power hegemony and the path of a community with a shared future for humanity. And the latter is the wisdom China has contributed to the world.” 

(A quick glance at the Charhar Leadership page reveals that this “private think tank” is actually an elite CCP-backed organization.)

  • The China Daily reported that at the 2019 SSHRF, “Human rights representatives from developing countries expressed strong opposition to moves that politicize human rights issues or that smack of double standards, and they called for a more just and reasonable global human rights governance system.”
  • Political and media adviser to the president of Syria, Bouthaina Shaaban, said: “Western powers have not only tried, but have intervened in other countries’ affairs in the name of human rights.”. . . It’s important that developing countries chart a new concept of human rights and new ways of implementing human rights.” China Daily continued, “[Shaaban] added that China’s willingness to hold such a forum represents a historical opportunity to redefine the concept of human rights for the benefit of the whole world, and to break the West’s monopoly on the concept.”
  • “Pablo Berti Oliva, a human rights official in Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China has long had ties with nations in the [South-South] cooperation. He said collaboration is not only about the transfer of technology or financial assistance, but also about helping each other to develop and share effective practices. Oliva called for nations in the group to be united and develop a strong voice in the international arena regarding human rights issues.”
  • Tom Zwart, a human rights law professor at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, said China’s “lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty is ‘the biggest accomplishment in human rights in human history’.” He continued, “All countries struggle with human rights challenges. We should help countries that have issues to improve rather than sitting on the sidelines and criticizing. I don’t like that criticizing at all, because it’s being used for political purposes, especially in the case of the United States.”

Professor Zwart has played a significant role not only in promoting China’s human rights record and agenda, but also in formulating its culturally contextual right to development-based human rights policy for Xi’s New Era. In fact, Zwart and his Amsterdam-based Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre (CCHRC) were involved in the drafting of the 2017 Beijing Declaration. In an address Zwart delivered in December, “China’s Contribution to International Human Rights during the past Seventy Years,” he said:

Since China’s position is shared by a growing number of Southern countries, it [China] will be recognised by many countries within the UN system as a legitimate moral leader which voices Southern ideas and ambitions. Adopting the concept of building a human community with a shared future as developed by President Xi, which is based on ‘harmony through diversity’, will secure the adaptability, longevity, and fairness of the international human rights system

In a report about the second SSHRF, the CCHRC noted that more nations participated in 2019 compared with 2017.  The report also said that the speeches in 2017 were “still relatively general emphasising the rights of the southern nations.” In contrast, several of the speeches in 2019 “were specifically criticising former colonial powers and the attitude of Western nations, in particular the U.S. Very outspoken was the address [by] Mr. Mushahid Hussain Sayed, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Pakistan Senate, who blasted recent U.S. criticism on China’s anti-terrorist policies in Xinjiang. . . .  Another conspicuous speech was that by Ms. Bouthania Shaaban, Political and Media Advisor of the Syrian president, who directly blamed the U.S. for the suffering of so many Syrians during the past few years.”     

Xi Jinping’s vision garnered praise among those speakers’ whose remarks are available online. For example, Ms. Nakpa Polo, the President of the Human Rights Committee of Togo, concluded her speech “by inviting each of [the participants] to read President Xi Jinping’s book entitled ‘Let us build a community of destiny for humanity’,[1] the French edition of which was launched in Togo on 03 September, 2019. Indeed, this major book is based on the observation that no country facing a world full of great uncertainties can act alone or get out of it alone. President Xi Jinping therefore invites us to follow a new voice for relations between States that favour dialogue and partnership rather than confrontation.”

Michael Njunga Mulikita, Dean of the School of Social Science of Mulungushi University in Zamibia, delivered an important message for the CCP, which has recently stressed the synergies between the BRI, the African Union’s 2063 Agenda, and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Professor Mulikita said that “African countries should not only embrace the One Belt and One Road Initiative, but build cooperative synergies with Agenda 2063, if they are to meaningfully give expression to the Right to Development to the peoples of Africa.” He continued, saying that the OBOR initiative “that has been promoted by the Peoples Republic of China and Africa’s grand development vision, Agenda 2063, that was adopted by the African Union in 2013, find convergence in their common espousal of a world whose peoples can enjoy the right to development thereby making it possible for all peoples to live lives premised on human dignity and equality.”   

                                     *                   *                  *

Professor Zwart and his colleagues at the Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre (CCHRC) missed the “public diplomacy occasion” preceding the 2019 South-South Human Rights Forum because they were in Changsha, Hunan, at the Central South University (CSU) Human Rights Center participating in the “International Seminar on International Human Rights Mechanisms from a Cross-cultural Perspective,” which the CCHRC co-organized. More than 70 experts and young scholars in the field of human rights from more than 10 countries attended the seminar held on December 8.

The CCHRC and the CSU Human Rights Center appear to have a close relationship; indeed, Zwart was appointed a senior academic advisor to the Center in December 2017. The seminar focused on such topics as “Developing Countries and International Human Rights Mechanisms,” “Reform of International Human Rights Mechanisms from a Cross-cultural Perspective,” and “Building a Global Community of Shared Future and Global Human Rights Governance.” An earlier iteration of the title of the seminar was apparently (the first) “China and Global Human Rights Governance Forum.” The CCHRC described the aim of the event on its website (before the name change) as “to further promote China’s participation and guidance in global human rights governance, propel building a global community with shared future and advance the development of human rights cause around the world.” 

The Changsha seminar received the blessing of the Vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Wan E’xiang (万鄂湘), in the form of a congratulatory letter that was read at the opening of the event. Wan stated that the seminar has a strong, practical significance in promoting the building of an international human rights governance system that is just, reasonable, and inclusive, and in advancing the healthy development of the international human rights cause.  As was the case following the 2017 SSHRF (Worden, at 5-8), papers delivered at the seminar in Changsha, along with those from the 2019 SSHRF, will no doubt find their way into the UN human rights system to support China’s positions.

The PRC’s push to create an alternative to the existing international human rights framework is rapidly gaining steam. China is deftly using all the tools in its toolbox, and has the growing support of countries in the Global South, not to mention authoritarian governments across the globe. Which begs the question: what exactly are the liberal democracies and the UN human rights bodies doing in response?   

[1] Xinhua: 曲青山率中共代表团访问多哥并举行习近平《论坚持推动构建人类命运共同体》法文版首发式。


Andréa Worden, J.D., M.A., is a human rights advocate, translator, and writer whose research focuses primarily on China and its interactions with the UN human rights mechanisms. She will be a visiting lecturer at Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts & Sciences during the Fall 2020 semester.

Follow her on Twitter @tingdc

2 responses to “The 2019 South-South Human Rights Forum: China Gathers Steam in Its Bid to Redefine the Concept of Human Rights”

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