Superpower rivalry ‘captures’ the Human Rights Council

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Human rights institutions and mechanisms

As argued in the Universal Rights Group’s end of session report, the recently concluded 48th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC48) was one of the most acrimonious gatherings in the fifteen-year history of the Council, with heightened contemporary geopolitical tensions spilling over into, and in many ways ‘capturing,’ the critical wider work of the UN’s main human rights body.

Much of the acrimony was centred on, and much of the growing division generated by, the ‘Great Power’ rivalry of, on the one side, the US, together with its Western (especially Anglo-Saxon) allies, and on the other side, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and their partners in the ‘Like-Minded Group’ (LMG).

When the US last ‘re-engaged’ with the Council under President Barrack Obama (2009-2015), it was indisputably the most powerful and effective actor in Room XX of the Palais des Nations. However, it tended to use that power and influence in a measured way, forging cross-regional coalitions on different issues, and sharing its political capacity (often innovatively) across a range of different thematic and country-specific priorities. These included, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, human rights on the Internet, combatting religious intolerance, the right to a nationality, technical assistance to Kyrgyzstan, Somalia and Tunisia, schoolchildren in Afghanistan, and the situations in Burundi, Iran, Sri Lanka, South Sudan, and Syria.

Today, as the US once again re-engages with the Council under President Biden, first (this year) as an observer State, and then (from January) as a member, the situation – for the moment, at least – appears very different. For one thing, America’s alliances (not just in the West) have frayed under the Presidency of Donald Trump, and good will towards the US, especially on the part of developing countries, is in short supply. Second, China’s strength and influence has increased sharply in America’s absence. The Council to which the US returns is thus a very different place to the one it abruptly left. Compounding this situation, unlike the period 2009-2015 (though admittedly, it is still early days – for example, much could change once Congress confirms a new US Ambassador to the Council), the US delegation has so far shown little inclination to develop a ‘wide portfolio’ of initiatives at the Council, including initiatives of importance or benefit to developing countries. Nor, more broadly, has the US so-far tried to understand and bend towards the values, perspectives, and interests of countries of the global South. HRC48 offered a prime example of this last point: faced with a draft resolution recognising the right to a healthy environment, and issue of critical importance to Small Island Developing States, the US opted to join Russia in repeatedly speaking out against this new universal right.

Instead of trying to empathise with, and respond to the interests of, a wider range of States at the Council, the US has, over the past nine months, focused almost all of its political capital on just one issue, namely, the human rights situation in China (especially Xinjiang and Hong Kong). To some extent this is both normal and correct. Addressing situations of human rights violations is clearly and explicitly part of the Council’s mandate as set out in GA resolution 60/251, and the US is one of the few countries in the world capable of bringing the very serious human rights situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong to the body’s attention. However, in this case, the American focus on China has been (very nearly) all-consuming, taking up almost the entirety of the US delegation’s political ‘bandwidth’.

China, unsurprisingly considering its newfound strength at the Council and its growing confidence internationally, has not taken this lying down. Instead, for every US-led joint statement criticising China, the People’s Republic has delivered its own attacks on the US, UK, or Canada (e.g., on racism, the slave trade, or indigenous rights); and for every US or UK side event or exhibition about Xinjiang or Hong Kong, China has organised its own, about, for example, ‘poverty alleviation and rural revitalisation in Xinjiang.’

At HRC48, China went even further, responding to repeated US attacks by tabling two formal draft resolutions – one, on ‘the negative impacts of the legacies of colonialism on the enjoyment of human rights,’ that was a thinly veiled attack on the US and the UK; and a second, on ‘realising a better life for everyone,’ that was a reassertion of China’s ‘vision’ for the future of the universal human rights system (i.e., as primarily there to promote economic and social rights, and development, through cooperation between States).

Moreover, during negotiations on a new EU-led resolution establishing a Special Rapporteur mandate on the situation in Afghanistan, China also attempted to place the US in an uncomfortable position over its military intervention in, and botched withdrawal from, the country (see below).

The Council deserves a ‘better life’

During negotiations on China’s draft resolution on ‘the negative impacts of the legacies of colonialism on the enjoyment of human rights,’ the EU delegation spoke for many (developed and developing countries) when it expressed concern over ‘where this is going.’ ‘Is this about human rights or geopolitics,’ they asked (rhetorically), reminding all sides (though especially China and the US) that ‘our first joint priority’ should be the preserving the integrity of the Council.

Notwithstanding such warnings, perhaps a more effective deterrent to China deploying a similar strategy (i.e., using ostensibly thematic resolutions to attack international rivals) in the future, emerged in the final days of HRC48, when States moved to take action on tabled texts.

Ahead of voting on China’s draft resolution on colonialism, the UK delegation tabled three ‘hostile’ amendments to the text (one was subsequently withdrawn).

Cleverly, the two remaining amendments sought turn China’s strategy back against itself by showing how certain Chinese policies are themselves examples of modern-day ‘colonialism’. The first, for example, reaffirmed:

‘[…] that persecution against members of any identifiable group, collective or community, on racial, national, ethnic or other grounds that are universally recognised as impermissible under international law, and the crime of apartheid, constitute serious violations of human rights and, in some cases, qualify as crimes against humanity.’ 

And the second urged States:

‘[…] to refrain from the forced assimilation of persons belonging to minorities, including indigenous populations, and to work to ensure that educational curricula and other materials do not stereotype minorities and indigenous populations on the bases of their ethnicity.’

In a blow to China, both amendments were adopted by the Council, the first with 16 in favour, 13 against, and 16 abstentions, and the second by a vote of 15-13-17. The final text, as amended, passed with 27 in favour, 0 against, and 20 abstentions.

A shaken China reacted to this de facto loss of face by withdrawing its draft resolution on ‘realising a better life for everyone.’


US-China rivalry, and the broader interests and reputations of the two superpowers, also spilled over into negotiations on a draft resolution designed to ensure that the Council can monitor the evolving human rights situation in Afghanistan following the fall of the democratic Government and the Taliban’s take-over.

For its part, China sought to portray the situation in Afghanistan as being a direct result of 20 years of US military interventionism in the country. In a joint statement delivered on 14 September, China and its allies[1] claimed that the US-led military intervention had ‘severely undermined the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, compromised its economic and social development, and violated the human rights of Afghan people.’ It was, moreover, ‘the root cause of humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.’ To back up their claims, these States noted that ‘by April 2020, at least 47,000 Afghan civilians had been killed in the war waged by the US, and more than 10 million Afghan people were displaced. Afghanistan’s neighbours have also been severely affected by the U.S. led military intervention.’

Moreover, China and its allies called for ‘crimes committed in Afghanistan by [US/Western] military personnel, such as killing of civilians and torture, [to] be thoroughly and impartially investigated. The perpetrators must be brought to justice and the victims deserve justice and remedy.’

Instead of looking back at 20 years of military (and civilian) involvement in Afghanistan, as well as at the chaotic manner in which it had withdrawn its remaining personnel, the US, unsurprisingly, preferred to focus on the future – particularly on the Taliban’s respect for human rights. The US therefore pressed the EU, which was leading on the draft resolution on Afghanistan, to establish a forward-looking monitoring mechanism (i.e., a Special Rapporteur) rather than an investigative mechanism (e.g., a fact-finding mission or commission of inquiry) that would look back at violations that have already occurred.

This pressure, together with the fact that many European countries were also involved, militarily or otherwise, in Afghanistan, led to Italy, on behalf of a group of 51 mainly European countries (plus the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, Costa Rica, and Colombia, etc.), delivering a joint statement expressing concern at reports of human rights violations committed by the Taliban since its take-over – ‘developments [which] threaten to reverse the political, economic and social achievements of the Afghan people over the last two decades.’

Italy continued: ‘We remain convinced there is an urgent need to set up an independent mechanism, that should have unhindered access to the Afghan territory, to investigate and promote accountability for violations and abuses committed by all Afghan parties [i.e., not American or other foreign parties], and to monitor the human rights situation moving forward [emphasis added].’

These conflicting positions and interests (of China and the US) subsequently played out during the negotiations on the EU-sponsored draft resolution on Afghanistan.

For example, China urged the EU to include wording on the root causes or ‘underlying reasons’ for the current crisis, namely ’20 years of war’ and ‘foreign intervention.’ Pakistan, a close ally of China, also warmed to this point, arguing that ‘the present situation is linked with the past situation.’ Pakistan conceded that Afghanistan ‘is in turmoil,’ but noted that this ‘was not of their own making.’

China also urged the main sponsors to also look back at past human rights violations, including ‘the killing of innocent civilians by foreign troops.’ Likewise, Pakistan expressed disappointment that the proposed Special Rapporteur mandate would be ‘forward-looking,’ offering the (rather powerful) argument that ‘20 years of international engagement with Afghanistan have given us important lessons to be learned.’

The US, Australia, UK, and others, meanwhile, expressed broad support for the proposed EU approach – i.e., the establishment of a forward-looking Special Rapporteur mandate.

With the adopted resolution (48/1) the Council therefore decided to appoint, for a period of one year, ‘a special rapporteur to monitor the situation of human rights as it develops [emphasis added] in Afghanistan,’ with a mandate to ‘report on the developing situation [emphasis added] of human rights, and to make recommendations to improve it.’

[1] Bolivia, Burundi, Cuba, DPRK, Iran, Russian Federation, Venezuela


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