The end of the “untouchables” at the Human Rights Council?

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

The presence of the P5 (all the permanent members of the UN Security Council) at the Human Rights Council (HRC) reconfirmed the importance of the Geneva-based body. However, it was feared that the HRC might thus also become paralyzed. The first days of the Council’s ongoing 46th session have so far proven the fear misguided. Instead, the debates have been more frank than before, to use the diplomats’ coded jargon. Powerful governments have been subjected to harsh criticism. It became clear very early as the session opened on Monday that there are no longer any untouchables in the room. Led by the British government, the change of tone was noticeable. UK's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the violations against Uighur Muslims an abuse of “industrial scale.” Britain's top diplomat said, “The reported abuses—which include torture, forced labor and forced sterilization of women—are extreme, and they are extensive."

Raab then called for the Council to pass a resolution allowing “unfettered” access to the camps where one million Uighurs are reportedly detained in what Beijing terms “re-education camps.” He also vigorously denounced China's repression in Hong Kong, where “the rights of the people are systematically violated.” Moving to Tibet, he described the situation as “deeply concerning.”

When his turn came, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also spoke out, citing “arbitrary detention of ethnic minorities” and “China's crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong.” Japan also made its voice heard regarding the situation of China. ‌‌ ‌‌EU High Representative Josep Borrell demanded that UN Human Rights High Commissioner be granted access: “We urge China to allow meaningful access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including High Commissioner Bachelet. This is key to enable an independent, impartial and transparent assessment of the grave concerns that the international community has.”

“The door to Xinjiang is open for the UN,” responded China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, reiterating his government's invitation without, however, providing a date. So far, the conditions imposed by Beijing for such a visit have created a deadlock in the discussion. ‌‌ ‌‌Wang, however, made it clear that China would not accept countries using human rights as a pretext to “meddle in another country's internal affairs.” “There has never been so-called genocide, forced labor or religious oppression in Xinjiang,” he said. “Human rights are not a monopoly by a small number of countries.” ‌‌ ‌‌The EU, US, as well as Poland, Iceland, Latvia, Georgia, and others, also used the opening session of the Council to put pressure on Russia.

“We have witnessed unacceptable repression against peaceful protesters in Russia,” said Borrell. “The EU condemns the Russian authorities’ decision to sentence Mr. Navalny; it is unacceptable and politically motivated,” he continued.‌‌ ‌‌“We deplore the widespread detentions and disproportionate use of force against protesters and journalists. We reject the legal pressure on independent civil society, human rights defenders, and independent political voices. These restrictions run counter to Russia's obligations under international human rights law. In all our countries, people must be able to express different opinions and exercise their right to demonstrate without fear of repression,” Borrell went on.‌‌ ‌‌Sergey Lavrov, foreign minister of Russia, answered with harsh criticism. The West, he said, promotes “blackmail and pressure” and resorts to organizing “fake news campaigns” against “dissident views.”

In his first—and highly expected—remarks before the Council following Washington's return to the body, the soft-spoken US State Secretary Anthony Blinken put pressure on both Russia and China, reiterating Washington's demand for the release of Alexander Navalny and others arrested by Moscow while calling China out for its abuses.  ‌‌ ‌‌“We will speak out for universal values when atrocities are committed in Xinjiang or when fundamental freedoms are undermined in Hong Kong,” he said.

Blinken made an appeal for countries to avoid authoritarian regimes using the UN to justify their repression. “Together, we must push back against blatant attempts to subvert the values upon which the United Nations is founded, including that each of us as individuals are endowed with human rights and that states are obliged to protect those fundamental rights. Those who hide under the mantle of promoting economic development while seeking to undermine human rights will be held to account, including for their own human rights violations,” he said.‌‌ ‌‌Blinken also declared: “As the United States reengages, we urge the Human Rights Council to look at how it conducts its business. That includes its disproportionate focus on Israel. We need to eliminate Agenda Item 7—which focuses on the impact of the Israeli occupation on human rights—in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories and treat the human rights situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories the same way as this body handles any other country.”

Finally, Blinken confirmed that the new administration might propose that criteria be applied for the election of countries to the Council. “Those with the worst human rights record should not be part,” he said.

Asked about Blinken's remarks concerning item 7, Dr. Riyad al-Maliki, Palestine's foreign minister, told a virtual news conference hosted by the Geneva-based UN Correspondents' Association (ACANU) Wednesday: “We are willing to cooperate with the USA to eliminate item 7,” but stressed, “under one condition, that the USA will guarantee Israel will stop its crimes against the Palestinian people.”