China is Demoting Human Rights at the UN

Jojje Olsson
Posted On June 30, 2017

China is using its growing influence not only to isolate Taiwan from the United Nations, but also to combat the organization’s general work on human rights. Increased Chinese funding and determination could redefine the very concept of human rights, with devastating consequences for democratic countries.

China, together with a small number of other authoritarian states, is at loggerheads with many democracies in the ongoing United Nation budget negotiations. The reason? China is determined to cut the funding for human rights officers in UN peacekeeping missions. This is something that, according to Human Rights Watch, is happening almost in secret since very few journalists cover UN budget consultations. But the rights organization has spoken to several diplomats involved in those consultations, emphasizing the importance of spreading knowledge of what China is up to.

Like scenes from a spy movie, the diplomats are talking about the fierce “horse trading” over the future of human rights monitoring in UN peacekeeping missions that are taking place in a basement conference room. Beijing’s negotiators allegedly want to withdraw 19 human rights experts in the Central African Republic who are monitoring the widespread violence against women and children. It also wants to defund human rights posts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and cut fundings from missions in Mali and South Sudan, which would most certainly also harm human rights monitoring there.

It is indeed in China’s interest to decrease or manipulate UN work with human rights. Since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has opposed many of the new, sweeping laws on terrorism and national security implemented under Xi’s watch. The UN Committee Against Torture has also repeatedly criticized China for the extensive use of torture in its judicial system, especially in the light of new information on systematic torture of dozens of the human rights lawyers and activists that disappeared in the “709 crackdown” in the summer 2015. While always denounced by Beijing, the regular criticism does not look good from a soft power point of view.

Restrictive stance

After some hesitation, the temporary UN Security Council delegation of my native Sweden tells me that they “unfortunately don’t have the possibility” to answer my questions regarding China’s influence on human rights work. I am instead referred to the Swedish Foreign Ministry, where Katarina Byrenius Roslund, Deputy Director of Press and News, points out the positive trend of China showing greater interest for multilateral, rules-based solutions in areas like climate and trade. She also underscores the fact that China is supporting global cooperation as well as the UN’s role to uphold world peace.

This cooperation, however, is not entirely free from frictions. “Sweden is continually worried about the situation for democracy and human rights in China. We have noted China’s restrictive stance on the UN budget concerning the financing of human rights and gender issues, and we will work for consensus based decisions to protect human rights in a wider perspective,” says Byrenius Roslund. But Human Rights Watch fears that China is likely to be successful with its demands, especially when teaming up with Russia and other likeminded countries.

The chance of success is increasing as American influence at the UN diminishes in step with its funding. The UN currently has a peacekeeping budget of about US$8 billion. The Trump administrations wants to slash some US$570 million from this budget, including a cut of US$200 million from the UN mission in the Congo. China, choosing the opposite approach, is now the world’s  biggest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions. Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2015, President Xi vowed to increase the number of Chinese troops under the UN flag from 3,000 to 8,000.

The same pattern can be seen in general funding. As late as 2010, China was contributing US$67 million to the UN budget, a mere 3 percent of the total revenue. In 2015 the sum had more than doubled, putting China on par with France and the UK, and on track of becoming UN’s biggest financier in coming years. No wonder that the new UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, is already showing signs of making concessions to China on human rights issues.

When Xi visited the UN office in Geneva in January, the UN not only sent home 3,000 staff for “logistical” reasons: it also prevented NGOs from entering its buildings, and had police put down a small pro-Tibetan protest outside, only to give room for a pro-Beijing protest of 100 or so people. (Earlier this year, a well-known Uighur activist was also thrown out from a forum on indigenous issues at the UN headquarters in New York.)

When introducing Xi in Geneva, Guterres praised China for its commitment to multilateralism and to the UN, choosing not to raise any concerns about human rights. And asked about Chinese human rights at a following UN staff meeting, held in the very Human Rights Council chamber, Guterres said it was important to include all countries on human rights, but necessary to “be balanced and avoid double standards.”

Shaking the foundations

Katarina Byrenius Roslund at the Swedish Foreign Ministry is embracing the fact that “China has signaled its support for the new [UN] General Secretary Antonio Guterres.” But that might come at the cost of changing the very foundations of the UN.

Already in December 2015, New York Times reported how China fought tooth and nail to include the word “multilateral” in a document set to define the policies of how the Internet should be governed globally. The word is code for states making their own rules, effectively recognizing a “leading role” for governments in controlling their own Internet with principles such as sovereignty and non-intervention by the UN in domestic affairs.

In an annual report in January 2016, Human Rights Watch stated that China is not yet playing any major role at the Human Rights Council, but is merely blocking investigations on assaults of human rights in countries such as North Korea, Syria, Iran, Belarus and Ukraine.

But China is now stepping up its game. Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a China-led resolution saying that development in itself constitutes promotion of human rights. The CCP-run People’s Dailycommented: “For a long time, the international rights process and conversation has been monopolised by Western governments,” adding that “some people from the West” often use human rights as an excuse to export own values and interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

The Human Rights Council often appears perplexed. It couldn’t even manage a condemnation when Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was obstructed during his nine-day visit to China, where the authorities blocked access to people Alston had hoped to meet with, and instead took him on an “abysmal tour” of an ethnic model village in China’s southwest, complete with colorful dances. Having been on similar research trips in many of the world’s poorest countries, Alston said he had never been treated like this before.

The Human Rights Council … couldn’t even manage a condemnation when Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, was obstructed during his nine-day visit to China, where the authorities blocked access to people Alston had hoped to meet with, and instead took him on an “abysmal tour” of an ethnic model village in China’s southwest, complete with colorful dances.

That China will use its growing clout at the UN for political purposes is evident for Taipei, as Taiwan this year was excluded from UN organs such as International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the World Health Assembly. The fact that both of those organs are headed by Chinese diplomats was particularly obvious during the World Health Assembly. While Taiwan was not even granted observer status, the health minister of North Korea was appointed as one of five new vice presidents at the meeting.

And this trend doesn’t stop at the UN. Lately it has been reported that Interpol, where China’s former security minister was appointed as director last year, is increasingly being used as a tool of the Chinese Communist Party. Presently it is issuing international warrants on corrupt Chinese officials overseas; tomorrow it might be political dissidents seeking refuge in Taiwan or elsewhere.

And earlier this month, the European Union three times failed to take a stance against China concerning human rights. The most significant occasion was June 15, when the EU didn’t manage to deliver a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council on the rights situation in China. It was the first time the EU failed to pass such as statement, the reason being Greece’s decision to block it for being “unproductive,” and instead calling for separate talks with China outside the UN.

A more likely reason for the action is China’s investment last year of about US$320 million in a Greek port and a promise to the cash-stripped country that it will play a major role as a shipping hub between Asia and eastern Europe. Earlier this year it was not Greece but Hungary that blocked the prospect of having all 28 EU member states put their names on a joint diplomatic letter condemning the systematic torture of Chinese human rights lawyers and activists. Hungary, under authoritarian strongman Victor Orban, also just happens to be one of the largest European destinations for Chinese investments.

China’s reshaping and diminishing of human rights and universal values at the UN, the EU and beyond is a diminution of the values that Taiwan and other democratic countries stand for. It is a problem that must be addressed before it is too late.