Sarah Brooks, on China at the UN

Sarah Brooks, on China at the UN

“China’s development agenda has increasingly appeared in stark contrast with a human rights-based approach, undercutting the interdependence of the UN’s development and human rights pillars.”

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

An interview with Sarah Brooks.

The Geneva Observer talks to Sarah Brooks at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), lead author of ‘China and the UN Economic and Social Council’ (ECOSOC), a new briefing note that aims to “provide a comprehensive overview of China’s presence and influence in ECOSOC.” Effective investment or undue influence, the report asks?

Over the years, China has been extraordinarily successful in developing its influence at the UN, particularly in promoting Xi Jinping and the CCP’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’, a hugely ambitious plan to connect China with more than 60 countries around the world, by land and by sea. “While at its simplest a scheme for growth-driven overseas development assistance, the BRI has been closely yoked to the global geopolitical ambitions of the Chinese state-party,” the report’s authors write. In their eyes this is a worrisome situation, as “China’s development agenda (often encapsulated by BRI) has increasingly appeared in stark contrast with a human rights-based approach, undercutting the interdependence of the UN’s development and human rights pillars.” “The BRI,” they continue, “is also a key component of China’s stated aim of the ‘construction of a new type of international relations’ that would shift the focus of international relationships and, by extension, multilateral organisations towards cooperation exclusively.” “The BRI, an ideological and economic project,” they remind us, has “been adopted by the UN, and specifically ECOSOC and its related bodies and agencies. ECOSOC is one of the principal organs of the UN. […] ECOSOC’s constellation of commissions, agencies, committees, programs and funds, underpin the UN’s work on sustainable development, including the monitoring of the implementation of Agenda 2030.”

Addressing the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in 2017, Antonio Guterres heaped praise on the project, declaring: “The Belt and Road initiative is rooted in a shared vision for global development. Indeed, China is a central pillar of multilateralism.” A few months later, in a speech before the African Union, the UN’s Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohamed, said “we must work to take advantage of one of the world’s largest infrastructure initiatives.” In total, the UN and its agencies have signed 25 Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with China about the BRI.

Critics, however, see the BRI as a predatory scheme that traps countries in ravaging debt schemes, increases corruption in developing countries, wreaks havoc on the environment, and violates labor and human rights standards.

Within the framework of ECOSOC, the report says, China also advances its own interests by “ensuring placement of Chinese nationals or favored third country nationals in key leadership positions; aligning UN resource mobilization with domestic initiatives (…) and engaging in gatekeeping behaviors to limit or end UN engagement by civil society organizations who do not—or will not—fall in line with Beijing’s politics.”

Philippe Mottaz: How and why was China able to enlist the UN’s top leadership to endorse the BRI initiative?

Sarah Brooks: There are many reasons, ranging from a strictly transactional approach to a political vision, and probably some indifference. There certainly are people within the UN leadership who defend the idea that we should have a more multipolar world—after all, the US has never been shy about pushing its weight around at the UN. I also think the BRI was perceived as a way to fund the SDGs and to be able to meet the 2030 Agenda’s targets. One needs to remember that there was a broad agreement about the need for infrastructure development, and that early on, it was the missing link—existing institutions, including the World Bank, couldn’t play the role. So while China may have been looking for open trade and market access, the package that the BRI seemed to provide was seen as a solution.

PHM: Your report  notes that some of the pushback against China’s growing influence in the UN dates back to the Trump administration. Did it have a clearer view of China’s ambitions than the previous administration?

SB: No, I wouldn’t say so. The Trump’s presidency actually coincided with an increased uptick in China’s engagement in the international sphere. From a very practical point of view, you must also remember that the Trump diplomats in Geneva didn’t have much to do: the US was no longer at the Human Rights Council; to some extent, they were isolated, not exchanging that much with their allies, and so they were involved in shaping the containment policy against China. One clear example of that was when the US and the Europeans, despite their differences, blocked a Chinese nomination at WIPO.

PHM: Where do you see the rivalry and the pushback happening in Geneva? Aren’t we just seeing the natural evolution of history and the redefinition of the global centres of power?

SB: One thing is certain; it’s not going to stop. The return of the US to the Human Rights Council as an observer has already changed the dynamics, and that will continue when it returns as a full member. I think one of the issues that will come to the fore rather quickly is the issue of forced labour, which will have an impact at the International Labour Organization (ILO). But more broadly speaking, the US has not always been a force for progress. In the human rights space, there have been a number of innovations brought by the other drafters of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, by a wide range of other governments—and by civil society.

Now, as for the evolution of history, I don't think it is a political game. It is a question of values and principles, and of what we are committed to. And depending on where you stand on those, it may either put you on China’s side or the other side. What we see on the ground and in Geneva is a fundamental shift impacting the way that not only Chinese activists, but global civil society can leverage the UN and the multilateral system going forward.