How will the Human Rights Council deal with the UN’s report on China?
In the run-up to Monday’s opening of the 51st session, diplomatic consultations of a rare intensity are underway in Geneva to ensure that the OHCHR’s report is not ignored and that further actions will be taken.
By Philippe Mottaz
Last week’s publication of the OHCHR’s report on China is testing both the international community’s ability to defend the universality of human rights and China’s commitment to being the major and reliable multilateral player it claims to be. In the run-up to Monday’s opening of the 51st session, diplomatic consultations of a rare intensity are underway in Geneva to ensure that the OHCHR’s report is not ignored and that further actions will be taken.
Since the report was not mandated by the Council, however, such a move would require a vote. For the West and its like-minded friends and allies, that means getting enough votes to pass a resolution—not an easy task given the HRC’s composition and the influence wielded by China and its allies, Russia included.
Outside of China and its friends, the report has been widely praised for its quality and its conclusions. Western diplomats here agree that the human rights violations documented in the report against Uyghurs and other minorities, which “may constitute crimes against humanity,” cannot be ignored. But in an extremely tense and volatile geopolitical context and with war raging in Europe, there is no agreement at this point on how or when to act. The stakes are unprecedented.
“We are now dealing with human rights violations committed by China and by Russia, two great powers, and two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council,” notes a senior Western ambassador. “It is essential that the OHCHR remains free to issue a report on any country. The West is not immune to the criticism of double standards. But I fear that if a majority of the members of the Human Rights Council were to decide not to investigate further, it would actually mean that it is not willing to defend the principle of the universality of human rights embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It would mean entering an entirely different world.”
Beijing slammed the report as a “farce” in a statement put out by its Geneva mission a few hours after its publication, denouncing it “as a politicized document that disregards facts, and reveals explicitly the attempt of some Western countries and anti-China forces to use human rights as a political tool.”
WHAT TO DO AND WHEN?
In light of China’s response, Western diplomats and those like-minded countries engaged in current discussions are divided over the question of when to submit a resolution before the Council. Some argue that waiting for next year’s March session might give them more time to secure the votes. This would also avoid having two items of major importance before the Council as it prepares to debate human rights violations in Russia and Ukraine. “Waiting may ensure that our response is appropriate in dealing with the severity of the violations. There is no statute of limitations on war crimes,” a diplomat familiar with the ongoing discussions said. “It’s a safe bet that the HRC will not be able to call for the creation of a Commission of Inquiry on China,” another HRC insider told The G|O.
“In the current climate, passing a resolution to engage with China would already be an enormous achievement.” “I must admit to having been surprised by China’s reaction to the report,’’ a seasoned diplomat told a group of Geneva-based UN reporters. “It was the same rehash of old positions. I suspect they were caught by surprise and didn’t have time to frame a more serious response. No country is perfect or immune to criticism. I would hope that China will follow the report’s recommendations.”
Should Beijing decide not to do so, the weakening of the multilateral system will only continue—and it may soon reach a critical point.