A tense session at the Human Rights Council

Can International Geneva hope to influence China’s position on human rights and make it more compliant to its obligations?

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

The return of the US to the multilateral table in Geneva and a reinvigorated alliance was never going to be smooth. The UN is seen by China and Russia as a way to tamper with Washington and the West’s influence in the world. With human rights back at the center of the US’s domestic and foreign priorities, the clash was programmed. It happened as the 75th session of the Human Rights Council had barely opened on Monday (June 21).

Often criticized by some defenders for her quiet diplomatic moves and tones, the United Nations High-Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet blasted Beijing’s clampdown on Hong-Kong on day one, expressing her “serious concerns” about the new National Security Law: “We have been closely monitoring its application and the chilling impact it has had on the civic and democratic space, as well as independent media,” she declared, spelling out a number of human rights violations.

“Since 1 July 2020, 107 people have been arrested under the National Security Law and 57 have been formally charged, with the first case coming to trial later this week,” said Bachelet. “This will be an important test of independence for Hong Kong’s judiciary in its willingness to uphold Hong Kong’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in accordance with the Basic Law,” she alerted.

The latest casualty of the National Security Law was Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper. It announced Wednesday (June 22 ) that it was ceasing publication after several of its editors had been arrested.

The Chilean also discussed her so far unsuccessful attempts to freely visit and obtain “meaningful access” to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from the Chinese government.   She now hopes that her visit could happen in 2022, “particularly as reports of serious human rights violations continue to emerge.”

Beijing’s response was swift. Liu Yuyin, spokesperson for the Chinese Mission in Geneva said that Hong Kong and Xinjiang were inalienable parts of China's territory and that Beijing would not accept “interference” by any external forces.

The tension of that first day gave the general tone of the ongoing session. On the next day, it was Canada’s turn to lead an alliance of over 40 countries in denouncing torture, human rights violations, and forced labor in China. “We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Canada's ambassador Leslie Norton said. Among the backers of the statement were Australia, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States.

The group said Beijing must allow Bachelet and other independent observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang as “credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uyghurs and members of other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uyghur culture.”

China’s tit-for-tat tactic

In turn, China used the HRC to denounce Canada for violating indigenous rights in its territory, asking for an “impartial investigation” on the fate of this minority group, as well as a UN intervention on the issue. Beijing did so after having rounded up its own coalition of 64 like-minded countries, a list that includes Belarus, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea, all declaring that they were deeply concerned about “the inhumane treatment of immigrants” in Canada and “systemic racial discriminations” in the country.

“Historically, Canada robbed the indigenous people of their land, killed them, and eradicated their culture,” the statement said, in a reference to the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in western Canada. “We call for a thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against the indigenous people, especially children,” the statement said.

The return of the US to the HRC, currently as an observer, and the renewed emphasis on human rights by the Biden administration, however, do not alone explain the new tone taken by the US and Europe against China. It reflects a growing sense that Beijing’s verbal aggressivity, illustrated by its “wolf warrior” diplomacy belies weakness and that, consequently, maximum pressure ought to be applied on the Chinese communist party’s leadership.

According to a senior Australian diplomat, “China is gripped by insecurity” adding, “Few really grasp that this great power is still dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition. That it has a deeply defensive mindset—perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others.” The characterization was immediately rebutted as “wholly untrue” by Beijing.

“The Chinese have realized that their ‘wolf warrior’ has led them into an impasse. The country’s image abroad has suffered and that means that their global influence is being diminished,” a senior western diplomat told The G|O recently.

An analysis shared in a recent internal policy paper by two academics associated with the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security. They argue that the repression of the Uyghurs has had very noticeable consequences for China: “In October 2020, 41 fewer states voted for China’s election to the UN HRC than in 2016, the fewest votes China has ever received since the Council’s establishment in 2006. Likewise, among the 15 countries elected to fill vacant seats in the 47-member body this year (2020), China received the lowest number of votes. This election came as unfavorable views of China reached historic highs in many countries, due to its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. This picture indicates that China’s position on the world stage is weaker than it has been in recent times.”

But the authors are also careful in not underestimating China’s influence. “The risk of international isolation remains low, given China’s influence (supported by its trade, technology, and foreign investment policies),” they write. “However, taking the above into account, and given its eagerness to project an image of soft power, China may be—today more so than historically—susceptible to international pressure,” write Federica D’Alessandra and Kirsty Sutherland.

The authors, thus, suggest that maximum pressure should be exerted on China at the Human Rights Council and elsewhere. Two particular mechanisms should be used at the HRC: the commission of inquiries and the Universal Periodic Review(UPR). But it will require more than talk.

“I think that it's important for Western governments in particular, but for all governments, to put their money where their mouth is. We're seeing, for example, that with the development of the Human Rights Council there's just not enough money to go around with a UN Human Rights Office,” D’Alessandra recently told The Geneva Observer, welcoming the US’s return to the Human Rights Council. She also made a strong case for adequately financing the UNOHCHR’s Special Procedures, which remain grossly underfunded, threatening the work of the special UN rapporteurs and the body’s ability to conduct its investigations and fact-finding missions under the best possible conditions.

The discussion about China’s potential receptivity to criticism about its human rights record is of major significance for International Geneva as it determines how and where to respond to China’s—or Russia’s—behavior and in turn, in a constant dialectic, how the two countries will act and react. An early test, and a measure of the US’s influence on the human rights scene, will be in Vladimir Putin’s treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, whose situation was discussed at length during the recent Biden-Putin Geneva summit.

“Will the ILO defend China’s Uyghurs?”

“Will the ILO defend China’s Uyghurs?” asked last year an op-ep in The Diplomat written by Andrew Samet, a former US representative to the organization under Bill Clinton. “Should it not, it would live ever after in infamy,” he told The G|O during a phone interview.  The question, while largely rhetorical since China has not ratified the ILO Forced Labour Conventions, is nevertheless a worthy reminder to International Geneva that the defense of human rights ought not be limited to the Human Rights Council.

“The point of leverage with China is going to be its trade and its economy,” D’Alessandra told The G|O. “To successfully leverage this for human rights we need to articulate to China that if it continues to carry its business in such a way and commit those violations, there will be a price to pay. So whenever there is a legal avenue available, it should be used and it has to be a combination of multiple instruments, even though the unfortunate reality is that there aren’t many instruments in the toolbox.”

Beijing for its part continues to insist that its aggressive diplomatic stance is merely a defense against the West’s accusations. “In the eyes of the Westerners, our diplomacy is on the offensive and aggressive, but the truth is, it is them who are on the offensive and aggressive,” Lu Shaye, China's envoy to France, said in an interview with the Chinese government-aligned website Guancha.cn published on Wednesday, June 23, and quoted by Reuters.   “What we are doing is merely justified defense to protect our rights and interests,” the senior diplomat said.

A softening of China’s position seems highly unlikely at this point. Geneva will be at the epicenter of these tensions for the predictable future.

-PHM, with additional reporting from Jamil Chade