Tomorrow, 13 October 2020, the United Nations General Assembly will elect 15 new members to three year terms (2021 – 2023) on the UN Human Rights Council.
Among member states vying for election to the 47-nation body are countries which have demonstrated a significant disregard for the respect and promotion of human rights domestically, including: China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, all of which received a rating of “Not Free” in the Freedom in the World 2020 index.
Of the sixteen candidates to the Human Rights Council, only two states (France and the United Kingdom) received a Freedom House rating of “Free”.
The remaining candidates were all awarded a rating of “Partly Free”.
Of particular concern for many member states, commentators and human rights organisations is the potential for China to gain a seat on the Human Rights Council. Over recent years, Beijing has systematically been positioning Chinese nationals as heads of a wide range of UN agencies, all the while showing a blatant disregard for human rights at home.
Chinese representatives currently head four out of 15 UN specialised agencies.
Chinese President Xi Xinping has made it clear that he views the UN as a vehicle for securing China’s global ambitions. At the same time, President Trump has instilled a scepticism of multilateralism, that has left China’s advancements into key positions unfettered.
China and the United Nations Human Rights Council
To understand why the presence of gross and systematic abusers of human rights on the UN Human Rights Council is problematic, it is helpful to understand the role of the council itself.
The United Nations Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body “responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.”
While all countries at the United Nations take part in the work of the Human Rights Council, only some states can make decisions; these are the 47 countries elected directly to serve on the Human Rights Council.
The Human Rights Council makes sure that all people understand their rights; makes sure that all people have the same rights; checks what governments do to protect the rights of people in their countries; checks if governments do what they agreed on at the United Nations and ultimately helps people whose rights were taken away.
Under the Human Rights Council’s own charter, states which grossly abuse human rights should not be viewed as suitable candidates for the council. UNGA Resolution 60/251, which established the Council in 2006 states that General Assembly members must:
“Take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights…[ensure candidates] uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights [and] fully cooperate with the Council.”
In contrast to this criteria, in recent years China been accused of:
- Facilitating enforced disappearances;
- Incarcerating political opponents, human rights defenders and foreign nationals;
- Attacks on journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents, petitioners and their family members;
- Extinguishing press freedom;
- Interference with the rights to freedom of assembly and association;
- Severe restrictions on religious freedom;
- Harsh prison conditions including use of the death penalty to execute more prisoners than any other country (+2000 in 2019 although this cannot be corroborated as no official data is released);
- Invasive use of citizen surveillance and arbitrary interference with privacy;
- A lack of independence in the judiciary;
- A coercive birth limitation policy;
- An inability of citizens to democratically choose their government;
- Breaking international law of the “One country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong through the introduction of the draconian Security law;
- Institutionalised corruption;
- Official repression of Tibetans and other ethnic and religious minorities including cultural genocide;
- and perhaps of most salience, presiding over the mass imprisonment of over one millions Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang who have been subjected to atrocities including forced labour, sterilisation, torture and unlawful killings.
Moreover, China has voted negatively on UN General Assembly resolutions speaking out for human rights victims in Iran, Syria, Cuba, Crimea and Myanmar.
Most recently, China voted against a resolution in support of human rights victims in Belarus.
It is clear that the values of this current Chinese regime are not compatible with that of the Human Rights Council. Allowing countries with weak human rights records onto the council undermines the legitimacy of the body when calling out global human rights abuses, but also provides states such as China with a greater ability to subvert international condemnation of their own abuses.
The reaction to this year’s candidates
On Saturday (10 October 2020), UK’s Shadow Home Secretary, Lisa Nandy urged the UK government to oppose China’s seat on the human rights body in protest of their ongoing abuse of Uighur Muslims.
In a letter to foreign secretary Dominic Raab, Nandy wrote:
“Labour is calling on the government to oppose China’s election to the UN human rights council … The UK must take this opportunity to show solidarity with the Uighur people and demonstrate that we can still be trusted to defend human rights around the world.”
Human Rights Watch has also called on United Nations member states to ensure that China and Saudi Arabia are not elected, calling them, “two of the world’s most abusive governments”. The human rights organisation also claims that Russia’s “numerous war crimes in Syria’s armed conflict makes it another highly problematic candidate.”
One of the most problematic aspects of this year’s election is the lack of competition. Four out of the five regional slates are ‘closed slates’, meaning that there are the same number of candidates running as there are winnable seats.
As an example, the Latin American and Caribbean group has three candidates – Bolivia, Cuba and Mexico – for a possible three seats on the Human Rights Council.
The absence of meaningful choice undermines the whole premise and rationale for holding elections.
There is however a procedure for opposing unqualified candidates in closed states. UN Watch in collaboration with the Human Rights Foundation, and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights state:
“Many UN member states mistakenly assume that their task is simply to ratify the pre-selections of the closed slates fixed by regional groups. The truth, however, is that nothing obliges any country to vote for any candidate, even if they appear on a non-competitive list…every candidate, including those on closed slates, must receive the affirmative votes of 97 countries, being an absolute majority of the GA membership.”
The organisations instead implore states to refrain from placing their confirmatory votes, which would, “allow other, better qualified candidates to come forward. In order to successfully block an unqualified candidate”.
Speaking on the threat to multilateralism within the UN, Director of IOHR Valerie Peay said:
“It has been said that China’s inclusion with a seat on the human rights council would bring them “inside the tent” and therefore they would be more likely, not less, to stand up to enforce international obligations to uphold human rights. There has been no evidence of this from China to date. They have sought out influence across the UN though financial and political pressure and exerted huge pressure on the UN, EU and individual governments not to criticise or highlight the human rights abuse in Xinjiang. Before they, and others, are given the honour and responsibility of sitting at the council table their peer group should see actions of their commitment to human rights both at home and in their voting record.”
The rules state that after a third inconclusive ballot: “votes may be cast for any eligible person or Member.” If member states refuse to elect human rights abusers and instead suggest more qualified countries, the General Assembly might convince hesitating governments that they have a realistic prospect of gaining a position on the council, this can only improve the operation and make up of the Human Rights Council.
At the annual General Debate of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that:
“The baton of history has been passed to our generation, and we must make the right choice, a choice worthy of the people’s trust and of our times.”
Given its financial dominance and ever increasing power – both soft and hard – it is unlikely that China will be rejected from the Human Rights Council. However, that does not mean the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly should not hold President Xi Jinping to account.
If the Human Rights Council is to fulfil its functions, they must ensure President Xi meets his commitment to:
“uphold the values of peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom shared by all of us and build a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind. Together, we can make the world a better place for everyone. “