China and the UN’s human protection agenda

by Rosemary Foot, Senior Research Fellow in International Relations at the University of Oxford Blog, Blog, By invitation, Instituciones, procesos y mecanismos de derechos humanos internacionales

In 1999, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously drew attention to what he saw as a core feature of the late twentieth century – a reinterpretation of State sovereignty. As he put it: ‘When we read the Charter today, we are more than ever conscious that its aim is to protect individual human beings, not to protect those who abuse them.’ Annan’s thoughts and approach – often labelled as ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ – had been propelled by egregious mass killings and violations of rights suffered in places like Rwanda and Srebrenica. These events and others like them promoted a UN agenda that challenged the predominant State-centric vision of security, a challenge that became manifest in several normative and institutional changes. Ideas such as the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P), the core requirement for UN Peace Operations to protect civilians caught up in armed conflict, as well as a commitment to deal with conflict-related sexual violence, all found their way onto the UN Security Council’s agenda. Moreover, the year 1993 saw the creation of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), while 2006 saw the establishment of a reformed human rights body, the Human Rights Council (Council). All such changes gave more substance to the notion that the UN had an inter-locking and interdependent three-pillar structure comprising international peace and security, development and human rights.

China’s more active engagement with the UN has accompanied these transformations in the Organisation’s normative and institutional architecture. As is well-known, Beijing has come to provide more peacekeeping troops than the other permanent members of the Security Council combined, and has become the second largest contributor both to the peacekeeping budget and to the UN’s overall budget. It has also established a ten-year US$1 billion China-UN Peace and Development Trust Fund. It has made sure that it is a regular participant at the Human Rights Council, having been elected to that body on four separate occasions since 2006.

And yet the Chinese Government is strongly associated with a vision of security that privileges the security of the State and argues, in effect, that individual security – human protection — is best guaranteed by building the capacity of the government in power. Indeed, as a counter to the UN’s growing commitment to an interlocking three-pillar structure, China articulates an alternative triadic model that argues for development, a strong State and social stability, as the best guarantors of individual, group and State, as well as of international peace and security. Its model thus largely ignores the human rights pillar in the UN’s structure. It also seeks to downgrade the role of independent civil society as providers of dissenting views about how societies should best be organised. It privileges long-term economic development within States as the main route to conflict prevention, including the prevention of mass atrocities. This means neglecting to formulate precise ideas about how best to marshal a swift response to early instances of human rights violations or impending conflicts.

How has a more powerful and ambitious Chinese Government attempted to make headway with this agenda? Concentrating here on a few examples drawn from the UN’s human rights framework across Geneva and New York, two principal means have been adopted: normative argument and institutional shaping. Normatively, official speeches highlight that sovereign equality is the most important norm governing State-to-State relations and is vital to the protection of human rights. Resolutions introduced at the Council in 2017 and 2019 emphasise that development is a foundational human right from which other rights may flow. As China’s Ambassador in Geneva stated during the 37th session of the Council: development is ‘the key to solving all problems related to human rights,’ adding that progress in human rights protection could not be ‘separated from a safe and stable domestic environment.’

Institutional changes should include, in Beijing’s view, an OHCHR that promotes ‘a culture of diversity’ and introduces the notion of geographical rotation in staff appointments up to the highest level. Apparently, OHCHR should also be reined in. For example, the UN Secretary-General’s request in 2018 to fund eleven new posts to support the human rights Treaty Bodies met with staunch Chinese opposition. The Council, in China’s opinion, should spend less time on country-specific resolutions, while the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process should be geared towards offering support for improvements in human rights protection rather than confronting those guilty of serious lapses in such protection. NGO participation should also be restricted, and it should be acknowledged that the international community has not come to a consensus on defining who should carry the label ‘human rights defender.’

As a senior Chinese diplomat summarised matters at the Third Committee in New York in 2015, the Council should end ‘naming and shaming;’ should respect countries diverse experiences, cultures, levels of development and histories; and should strike a better balance between civil, political and economic rights, and particularly the right to development. Two years later, the Chinese delegation added an attack on Special Procedures, whose post-holders, his Government felt, went ‘beyond their terms of reference,’ and were too keen to ‘exert pressure publicly.’ NGOs also came in for criticism: they made ‘politically motivated [and] malicious attacks’ against governments, and their participation needed to be more strongly regulated. As one member of the UN secretariat described it in a confidential interview, China’s preferences would reduce the UN’s role to one of a purely technical kind. And as a member of a non-Western delegation to the Council recently put it, Beijing has no credible response to offer where a State refuses to cooperate with the UN’s human rights mechanisms.

China’s successes have been numerous. Apart from the passage of its Council resolutions, in 2020 Beijing was appointed to represent the Asian group at the Consultative Group of the Council – a body that assists in the appointment of experts to Special Procedures. It has turned the UPR process into an occasion for praising its accomplishments in the human rights field rather than for the advancement of fundamental reforms. It has also resisted budgetary expansion, and curtailed NGO participation.

Nevertheless, there has been pushback. One Special Rapporteur has pointed out that China’s championing of a right to development fails to incorporate development as a right to be claimed. That would require independent accountability mechanisms. Another Special Rapporteur has focused on China’s failure to conduct a full investigation into the death in a Chinese prison of Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights activist. Former and current UN High Commissioners for Human Rights have criticised repressive measures inside China, and especially so following the mass detention of Muslims in the Xinjiang autonomous region, initially exposed in a report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Neither has Beijing been able to protect its allies such as Iran, Myanmar and North Korea from censure at the Council and elsewhere.

Yet overall, those intent on safeguarding and upholding the universality and indivisibility of human rights face an increasingly uphill battle, especially in an era when China seeks to play an ever more active and defining global role.


Emeritus Professor Rosemary Foot is a Senior Research Fellow in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the British Academy. She has just published with Oxford University Press, China, the UN, and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image, research for which was supported by the Leverhulme Trust.


Feature photo: Official visit of the President of China, Geneva, Switzerland ,January 18, 2016. UN Photo/Pierre Albouy

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