This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, a spotlight on the Human Rights Council, where this afternoon, in an expected but nevertheless disparaging rebuke to the West, China won a close but consequential diplomatic victory, proof of its growing influence at the Council and beyond. We report on the weeks of intense diplomatic maneuvering that took place up until this afternoon’s vote and the underlying forces that help explain the result. Tomorrow, on the last day of its ongoing session, in what promises to be another intense discussion, the Council will discuss a resolution put forward by 26 European countries to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Russia to investigate human rights violations in the country, including mass arrests and detention of protesters against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine and systematic harassment of opposition politicians, human rights activists, and journalists.
We also report on two side events, one calling for putting an end to surveillance operations conducted by hacking mobile phones, the other a high-level panel to keep pushing for the creation of a permanent mechanism to investigate serious human rights violations.
We conclude with an op-ed by Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Escalating nuclear threats, she writes, are eroding the decades-old taboo against the use of such weapons and are drastically increasing the risk of cataclysmic conflict. The international community must therefore respond to Russia’s latest rhetoric by unequivocally condemning all nuclear threats.
It's all below. As always, thank you for reading us.
REFUSAL TO DISCUSS THE HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION IN CHINA IS A DEFINING MOMENT FOR THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL—AND A REBUKE TO THE WEST
By Jamil Chade with Philippe Mottaz
The battle for human rights and for liberal values is “a battle we cannot lose,” a senior western ambassador recently told a group of UN correspondents after the publication of the UN High Commissioner Office for Human Rights’ report alleging that “crimes against humanity” had occurred in Xinjiang.
But this afternoon (October 6), in a stinging rebuke of the West, 19 countries of the 47-member state Human Rights Council handed a close victory to Beijing by rejecting a proposal from the Western allies to hold a debate on the alleged rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s Western province. Seventeen countries voted in favor, and 11 abstained. The vote on a "draft decision" prompted a smattering of applause in the room, underlining the moment’s significance.
For many HRC watchers, this was a defining moment. The result confirmed China’s growing influence at the Council and, more broadly, the solidification of the Global South’s anti-US and anti-Western alliance.
“This is just the beginning of the clash between China and the US at the Human Rights Council. The confrontation will dominate every aspect of international politics for years to come,” predicted a Latin American ambassador to The G|O.
CHINA'S GROWING INFLUENCE AT THE COUNCIL
China successfully built a coalition rejecting the draft decision among its usual allies, including many African countries and Persian Gulf States Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. “Let’s not forget that China is now the largest trading partner of more than a hundred countries around the world,” a Western ambassador told The G|O in commenting on the vote. Over the last few weeks, Beijing cemented its coalition by exerting maximum pressure on some countries, a real Chinese show of force,” another diplomat told us.
“Apparently, even a disastrous report on the situation in Xinjiang is not sufficient to find enough countries to back a mere debate on the matter.”
Over the last few days, as the diplomatic activity reached an unprecedented level on both sides–it was the first time since the creation of the Council that China was faced with a country-specific resolution–it was becoming increasingly clear that the Western allies might not be able to rally enough votes in favor of their draft decision to hold a debate on China.
For Olaf Wientzek, Director of the KAS Foundation, “this vote is extremely disappointing but not entirely unexpected: “Apparently, even a disastrous report on the situation in Xinjiang is not sufficient to find enough countries to back a mere debate on the matter. It demonstrates China's influence among many member states of the Human Rights Council, but it is only one part of the explanation: some countries simply do not want to have discussions about problematic developments in a state, fearing they may end up being the target of such a debate.”
It is an argument that the Chinese ambassador himself repeatedly made, telling assembled reporters outside the Council that many country members of the Council understood that if today China was a target, “tomorrow it could be them.”
“No country represented here today has a perfect human rights record,” Michèle Taylor, the US ambassador to the Council, said during the debate. “No country, no matter how powerful, should be excluded from Council discussions. This includes my country—the United States—and it includes the People’s Republic of China.”
A number of Western diplomats also expressed surprise at the fact that countries with a Muslim-majority population voted against the decision, except for Somalia.
WEEKS OF INTENSE DIPLOMATIC ACTIVITY
Today’s vote was the culmination of weeks of intense diplomatic activity and arms-twisting following the publication in August of the OHCHR report on China. And the text submitted to a vote was among the shortest submitted before the Council. It simply read:
“The Human Rights Council,
- Taking note with interest of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, published on 31 August 2022,
- Decides to hold a debate on the situation of human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region at its fifty-second session under agenda item 2.”
Over the last few weeks, Beijing has been busy building a coalition to defeat the proposal. “Should the draft decision be approved, it would make China the new Israel,” an Asian diplomat told The G|O, in reference to the fact that at every session, the HRC devotes a special item on its agenda (Item 7) to discuss the human rights situation in “Palestine and other Arab occupied territories,” the only item on the Council’s agenda which refers to a particular country.
Beijing feared that, if approved, the decision would permanently put the focus on China at the HRC. It went on the offensive immediately after the August 31 pre-midnight epic publication of the report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), repeating in many forms its long-held position that criticism of China represented an unjustifiable “politicization” of human rights pushed by the West and was tantamount to meddling in China’s internal affairs.
Along with the proponents of the draft decision, human rights defenders and activists consider that the HRC would lose some of its legitimacy should it not follow up on the Bachelet report, which, not being mandated by the HRC, requires a decision by the Council to act.
Reacting to today’s vote, Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch wrote: “While the Council’s failure to adopt the proposal is an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of Uyghur victims, the extremely close vote highlights the growing number of states willing to take a stand on principle and shine a spotlight on China’s sweeping rights violations.”
ALL AVENUES WERE EXPLORED BY THE WEST—UNSUCCESSFULLY
The HRC’s byzantine procedures were used by the US and its European allies and friends to try to ensure the passage of the draft decision. Rather than demanding that the discussion be held under Item 4, “human rights situations that demand the Council’s attention,” the draft decision called for a debate under Item 2, a lower level of intervention.
Chinese diplomats had correctly predicted that the key to defeating the Western proposal would lie with Beijing’s ability to rally Africa’s support and part of the Latin American vote. Most African countries had already sided with China when, in a letter, Beijing denounced the Bachelet report on Xinjiang. HRC watchers and diplomats had hoped that voting to essentially kill any further action on the Bachelet report in the foreseeable future by the Council might, however, represent a risk some African countries were unwilling to take. They were proven wrong. A new trend in the African voting record at the HRC had shown a worrisome evolution for the West.
In a recent study, Defend Defenders, an NGO, mapped the pattern of votes by African governments and concluded that, in country-specific resolutions, “abstention is African states’ most frequent position. […] Mass African support for country-specific resolutions is only observed for resolutions presented under the Council's agenda item 7 or addressing Palestine.” But the author’s analysis also revealed a trend that ended up favoring China: ‘No’ votes have increased over time when relating to country-specific resolutions, as is the case here. On some of these resolutions, African states made up half or more of the total number of ‘No’ votes.
“This is a new phenomenon,” the study states. Some also point to the growing Russian influence in Africa, as recently illustrated in Burkina Faso. Given the stakes, no diplomatic efforts were spared by the proponents of the draft decision. The Biden administration sent a high-level delegation led by Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights and US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Uzra Zeya to Geneva to rally wavering countries to support the text.
In an attempt to get their support, the draft decision’s proponents insisted that they would not seek to put a permanent focus on China; they were also willing to establish a two-year moratorium before any new resolution or decision would be put forward about China at the Council. In vain, it turned out.
A FOLLOW-UP: GROWING SUPPORT FOR THE CREATION OF A STANDING MECHANISM TO INVESTIGATE SERIOUS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
By Philippe Mottaz
It was hard to find an empty seat at the recent Human Rights Council side event put together by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to drum up support for the creation of a Standing Independent Investigative Mechanism (SIIM) to investigate serious human rights violations and strengthen accountability. First unveiled publicly in May, this is a clear indication that the project has been gaining traction since. There are currently more than 15 so-called “mechanisms,” specialized and dedicated units investigating human rights violations in different countries and assembling case files for prosecution. Among them are the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) investigating serious crimes committed in Syria and the Independent Investigative Mechanism (IIM) on Myanmar.
But if experts agree that these accountability mandates play an important role, there is also a broad consensus that the piecemeal approach to the establishment of such mechanisms may have to be reconsidered to ensure better efficiency and tackle new challenges—including the critical importance of handling digital evidence, now crucial in documenting abuses and violations.
With the proliferation of mechanisms, sometimes with different mandates, “the pertinent question has arisen whether one single-standing accountability mechanism wouldn’t be better suited to lead investigations in most serious crimes. The idea of such a mechanism is very compelling,” Kurt Jäger, Liechtenstein Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the gathering.
With Germany, Liechtenstein is one of the main governments officially supporting the project. For the ICJ, a SIIM would have two functions:
- conduct investigations with a view to gathering information and evidence for potential use in criminal and other legal and administrative proceedings
- use its capacity to act as a specialist service provider to existing and future UN body-created Accountability Mandates, including relevant fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry.
Its proponents also stress that the SIIM would support and complement the existing human rights and international justice architecture, including the work of the Hague International Criminal Court (ICC).
It would do so in three ways, the ICJ’s Kingsley Abbott explained: the SIIM could carry out investigations in situations where the ICC has no jurisdiction, it could conduct advanced investigations before the ICC could become operational, and thirdly, serve as a “force multiplier” for the Hague. Catherine Marchi-Uhel, head of the mechanism on Syria used the analogy of a “mothership” to describe the SIIM’s added value to the current system. “It wouldn’t be static,” but could offer expertise, support, and assistance to the various existing mandates. “Its main task would be to provide a pool of services,” she told the audience, ensuring that “the precious lessons and best practices” of the different mandates be retained and perpetuated. “It took us a whole year to become operational and much more time to develop many of our current methodologies, let alone the technical capacities to do the work,” she remarked.
Challenges to the creation of such a standing mechanism undoubtedly abound. But from China to Russia, there is also growing pressure from liberal democracies and civil society to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to account. “We have massive violations taking place in our world today, crimes of torture, and murder and rape. We see attacks on hospitals and on humanitarians, forcible disappearances followed by torture and deaths. But the current justice institutions make it difficult to carry these cases forward. And the perpetrators sense that they can get away with their violations. (…) We need the kind of (digital) information that links the crimes to the perpetrators. I think it is absolutely essential if we don’t want to see even more crimes and more violations than we’ve seen in the last ten years,” Ambassador Stephen Rapp, former United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues and the principal architect behind the creation of the SIIM, forcefully argued.
CALLS FOR A GENEVA DECLARATION ON TARGETED SURVEILLANCE
By Sarah Zeines
When the Guardian revealed what is now called Catalangate, the largest digital espionage affair to date, they propelled the war on spyware to a whole new level. Like Mexican journalists, Thai pro-democracy activists, or Palestinian human rights defenders, several of Catalonia’s pro-independence supporters were infected with the infamous Pegasus (created by the Israeli company NSO) and Candiru programs for seemingly political purposes. Amongst the 65 targeted politicians later identified by Citizen Lab and The New Yorker magazine in a follow-up investigation are Roger Torrent (the speaker of the Catalan regional parliament), Anna Gabriel (a former regional MP who recently returned to Spain after her exile in Geneva ), and Jordi Domingo (an activist). The Spanish government behind the illegal surveillance that took place between 2017 and 2020 claimed their actions were justified by the need to monitor what it considered to be a seditious movement.
“Just like with weapons and conflict minerals, import and export laws also need to regulate the circulation of malware, intrusion software, and remote monitoring tools.”
A CALL FOR GLOBAL REGULATIONS
The surge in political hacking and its threat to democracies has become a major topic of attention for human rights defenders. A report published during the 51st session of the Human Rights Council identified the many safeguards and remedies needed to put an end to the issue, followed by digital rights NGO Access Now’s call for The Geneva Declaration on Targeted Surveillance and Human Rights: a plea for more regulation in the industry, supported by the Government of Catalonia, the private sector, and civil society. “For starters, States need to cut ties with the bad actors—such as NSO—identified in the industry, and companies that develop digital technology need to patch the codes that have been broken by surveillance devices,” says Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now. “Just like with weapons and conflict minerals, import and export laws also need to regulate the circulation of malware, intrusion software, and remote monitoring tools. Actions can also be taken by the private sector. WhatsApp and Apple, for instance, are currently suing NSO and protecting their users against Pegasus.” Once a person’s device is infected, “there is no limit to the data, information, and control that spyware enables remote attackers to enjoy over the targeted devices. Photos, videos, and other information stored on the device, location data, contact lists, calendars, social and email accounts, and much more become available to attackers,” adds Micek.
CITIZEN LAB'S SUPPORT
Isn’t it too late to act? Surveillance technology comes in many forms and has infiltrated society on a global scale. “I trust that singular actors like NSO will meet their reckoning,” insists Micek. “Italian company Hacking Team had its demise. Others can be brought down as well. Indeed, the more significant issue of developing cyber weapons is not easy to solve, but we’re all in this together.” Siena Anstis, who is a Senior Legal Advisor at Citizen Lab, agrees that the initiative carries hope: “Putting these commitments in writing is a helpful step that is being complemented by continued research and reporting on the deployment of these technologies against civil society, journalists, and human rights defenders. The Declaration has to be matched with a clear and specific action to address this proliferation. In particular, we urgently need to see targeted and robust regulatory action by governments concerning the sale, import/export, and use of digital surveillance technologies.”
THE CRUMBLING NUCLEAR TABOO
By Beatrice Finh*
On September 21, in a pre-recorded address, Russian President Vladimir Putin escalated his nuclear posturing, threatening to use the weapons “in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people.” It is just the latest evidence of the erosion of the nuclear taboo.
Putin’s most recent threat, like all the other nuclear threats he has issued since invading Ukraine in February, goes well beyond Russia’s official nuclear doctrine, which states that the weapons may be used in response to conventional attacks “imperiling the very existence of the Russian state.” It is clearly incompatible with the assertion that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” affirmed in January by the nuclear-weapons states recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), and repeated by Putin in August at the NPT review conference.
PUTIN’S WORRYING THREAT
Putin’s recent nuclear threat is particularly worrying in light of Russia’s staged referendums in the parts of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts in Ukraine that it currently occupies. With Russia having now annexed these territories, Putin could portray Ukrainian military operations aimed at liberating them as threats to Russia’s “territorial integrity,” meriting a nuclear response.
This is not mere speculation: former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said as much on September 22. And a military convoy capable of carrying nuclear weapons is now reportedly heading toward Ukraine. Putin, for his part, claims that his nuclear threats are a response to the West’s “nuclear blackmail” – that is, “statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia.” It is not clear which statements he is referring to, or if any such statement has been made at all. But even if Putin’s nuclear threats came first, there is no doubt that such rhetoric is gaining traction.
NO OVERSTATING THE DANGER
The danger cannot be overstated. Nuclear threats often beget warnings of retaliation. Even when leaders refrain from issuing direct threats, they discuss possible nuclear responses to an attack, usually without much regard for the devastating consequences. This normalizes the idea of using nuclear weapons, thereby drastically increasing the risk of cataclysmic conflict. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, US President Joe Biden went some way toward recognizing this risk, when he condemned Russia’s “irresponsible” nuclear threats. But it is worth being clear: all nuclear threats are irresponsible.
“Stopping nuclear threats, reducing the chances that nuclear weapons will be used, and making genuine progress toward nuclear disarmament will demand a truly global commitment.”
As the US recently told Russia, any use of nuclear weapons would have truly catastrophic consequences. This is especially true in a region as densely populated as Europe. Even so-called tactical nuclear weapons – which many warn Putin will use on the battlefield in Ukraine – typically have explosive yields in the range of 10-100 kilotons of TNT. The atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945, killing 140,000 people, had a yield of 15 kilotons.
A THREAT AGAINST ONE COUNTRY IS A THREAT AGAINST ALL COUNTRIES
A single nuclear detonation would likely kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and injure many more. Moreover, the radioactive fallout could contaminate large areas across multiple countries. Widespread panic would trigger mass movements of people and severe economic disruption. A nuclear threat against one country is therefore a threat against all countries, and it merits a global response. The international community must respond to Russia’s latest threats not by issuing threats of its own, but by unequivocally condemning any and all nuclear threats, stigmatizing and delegitimizing the possession of nuclear weapons, and pursuing serious efforts to eliminate them entirely. Unfortunately, nuclear-armed states remain reluctant to adopt such an approach. Unequivocally condemning all nuclear threats would mean forgoing the option to make such threats when it suits them, and even to maintain the deterrence doctrines (which contain implicit nuclear threats) on which they rely. That is why they resisted issuing such a condemnation at the latest NPT conference. By contrast, in June, the first meeting of countries that have joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) condemned “unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.”
The TPNW comprehensively prohibits nuclear weapons, just as international law prohibits other weapons of mass destruction (biological and chemical). It also prohibits threats to use nuclear weapons. The TPNW’s membership is growing steadily: just last month, five more states joined, bringing the number of signatories to 91, and two more states ratified it, for a total of 68 parties. But, to boost global security at a time of escalating nuclear rhetoric, more countries must join. Stopping nuclear threats, reducing the chances that nuclear weapons will be used, and making genuine progress toward nuclear disarmament will demand a truly global commitment. The TPNW is the right place to start.
*Beatrice Fihn is Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Sarah Zeines
Guest Contributor: Beatrice Fihn
Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue
Edited by: Paige Holt