China’s design for human rights

Stephen Mulrenan

President Xi’s China is now a major player at the United Nations, supporting peacekeeping operations and emphasising global cooperation to protect human rights. But there are fears that China’s more active role could erode multilateral intervention and even lead to the demise of international human rights laws.

As the United States appears to retreat from its global leadership role, China has moved to fill the vacuum by presenting itself as a prominent advocate of internationalism and free trade. It has also emerged as a pivotal player in international human rights.

Over the last few years, China has developed an increasingly influential seat at the United Nations. In 2018, it provided just over ten per cent of the UN’s total peacekeeping budget – a significant increase from the 3.9 per cent it contributed only six years earlier. China is also now the third-largest contributor to the UN’s regular budget.

The US, on the other hand, has taken a backseat. In December 2017, the Trump administration announced it was cutting funding to the UN by $285m, while it has also reduced financial contributions to peacekeeping operations. Last June, President Trump decided to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), opting to pull out of what then US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called a ‘hypocritical and self-serving organisation that makes a mockery of human rights’, rather than supporting reform from within.

Now on the front foot, China has trained more than 8,000 troops to serve as standby militia for peacekeeping missions. At the 2015 Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping in New York, President Xi Jinping pledged to provide $1bn to UN peacekeeping over the next five years. This led UN Secretary-General António Guterres to describe China as an ‘honest broker’ and ‘bridge-builder’ in international conflict.

But others remain sceptical about China’s more active role at the UN, believing that its peacekeeping efforts – from its early contribution in Cambodia in 1992–1993 to more recent deployments in Darfur, Mali and South Sudan – are largely motivated by a desire to enhance its global reputation. There are also concerns that the values of President Xi may not be compatible with many other countries; in particular, that China’s growing influence at the UN could erode multilateral intervention, reduce state accountability and even lead to the demise of international human rights laws.

China has waged an internal battle at the UN to see its human rights component reduced. This is part of a broader pattern

Federica D’Alessandra
Co-Chair, IBA Human Rights Law Committee; Executive Director, Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security

‘There’s no doubt that under Xi Jinping, China’s foreign policy has become more assertive,’ says Federica D’Alessandra, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and founding Executive Director of the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict.

‘President Xi has claimed a different, stronger role for China as a world power,’ she adds, ‘whether by virtue of its increased participation in peacekeeping, through a surge in foreign direct investments and development aid, or its increased activity in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific.’

China’s gameplan behind its talk of “win-win” cooperation is a systematic approach to dismantling the concept of state accountability. This could be devastating for human rights

Dr Sophie Richardson
China Director, Human Rights Watch

Xi’s China is also more muscular – reflected in its increasing military engagements abroad and the modernisation of its military. ‘When you couple this with increased Chinese support for development programmes and its leadership on climate change control, it’s reasonable to assume these efforts might, at least in part, be explained by China’s attempts to boost its image as a world power,’ says D’Alessandra.

Dr Sophie Richardson, the China Director at Human Rights Watch, agrees that Beijing has its global image in mind when it comes to peacekeeping. ‘A Chinese team recently went on a UN peacekeeping training junket, where it was able to show the world it is a peaceful, benevolent actor,’ she says. ‘China hopes that images of its peacekeepers can wipe out memories of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square.’

China pushes its agenda

China’s historical relationship with the protection of human rights through the UN dates back to 1948 and the creation of the UN itself. Chinese academic and diplomat Peng Chun Chang was one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and served as Vice-Chairman of the drafting committee under Eleanor Roosevelt.

Since then, China’s approach to human rights – the third pillar of the UN system, along with peace and security, and development – can be broken down into three distinct timeframes:

  • before the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989;
  • from 1989 to 2013, when China fended off international scrutiny by engaging more with the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and, from 2006, its more robust successor, the UNHRC; and
  • from 2013 onwards, China, under President Xi, has promoted its own interpretation of human rights.

With Xi as President, China has more confidently pushed its agenda, despite its own deteriorating human rights record. For example, during the 29th Session of the UNHRC in 2015, China’s delegation made 35 discrete, formal interventions – raising objections to new UN resolutions or amendments to resolutions – compared to 26 a year earlier. These included on country-specific situations in Belarus, Eritrea and Syria.

It’s been suggested that China has adopted a more activist role on the UNHRC to block international criticism of its human rights record, and to promote its belief in non-interference in internal affairs. This approach directly goes against the UN’s 1993 Vienna Declaration, which underlines the role of international action and state accountability to protect universal human rights (see box: Universal human rights – the Vienna Declaration).

Votes on seven specific proposed resolutions presented by China at the UNHRC between 2016 and 2018 support this argument. In two cases, China led sponsorship of a resolution for the first time. These presented Chinese interpretations and terminology, and won endorsement by a majority of Council members.

The first resolution, in June 2017, suggested that respect for human rights depends on ‘people-centred development’, as opposed to being inherent to human dignity regardless of a country’s level of development. It also recognised ‘a community of shared future for human beings’ and welcomed ‘win-win outcomes’.

The second, in March 2018, reflected China’s insistence that ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’, constructive dialogue, technical assistance and capacity-building should be the primary tools for promoting human rights at the UN – rather than resolutions that ‘name and shame’ specific countries for their egregious human rights violations.

China was an active co-sponsor in the other five cases, which unsuccessfully sought to weaken international norms to protect civil society or enhance the principle of non-interference in sovereign affairs.

There are also examples beyond the UNHRC, where China has influenced human rights decision-making at the UN and elsewhere. For example, alongside Russia, it has sought to defund and suppress some 170 key human rights posts through closed-doors budget negotiations, including in the immediate office of the UN Secretary-General.

Top ten contributors to UN peacekeeping

UN Member State Effective rates (% rounded up)
  2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
United States 27.1 28.4 28.4 28.4 28.6 28.5 28.4
China 3.9 6.7 6.6 6.6 10.3 10.3 10.2
Japan 12.6 10.8 10.8 10.8 9.7 9.7 9.7
Germany 8.0 7.1 7.1 7.1 6.4 6.4 6.4
France 7.6 7.2 7.2 7.2 6.3 6.3 6.3
United Kingdom 8.2 6.7 6.7 6.7 5.8 5.8 5.8
Russian Federation 2.0 3.2 3.1 3.1 4.0 4.0 4.0
Italy 5.0 4.5 4.5 4.5 3.8 3.8 3.8
Canada 3.2 3.0 3.0 3.0 2.9 2.9 2.9
Spain 3.2 3.0 3.0 3.0 2.4 2.4 2.4

Source: UN Peacekeeping – Effective rates of assessment for peacekeeping operations, 1 January 2012 to 31 December 2018, based on the scale of assessments (adopted by the UN General Assembly) to gross national income data

A gameplan to tackle dissent

In a national report to the UN in 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs outlined how its rationale is to develop human rights with Chinese characteristics. ‘There is no universal road for the development of human rights in the world,’ it argued. ‘As an important element in the economic and social development of each country, the cause of human rights must be promoted on the basis of the national conditions and the needs of the people of that country, and cannot be defined on the basis of a single authority.’

‘China’s gameplan behind its talk of “win-win” cooperation is a systematic approach to dismantling the concept of state accountability,’ says Richardson. ‘This could be devastating for human rights.’ D’Alessandra says that while China’s rejection of norms that conflict with national sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs is not new, the country has recently adopted a more assertive strategy to silencing civil society and human rights groups.

‘By leading on normative agendas such as international development and climate change, China has boosted its credibility as an important international actor willing to engage on the international level and able to play by international rules,’ she says. ‘Its strategy, however, has been to use this influence to contest the substantive content of the rules by which it is threatened, and to counter them by participating more actively and forcefully within the bodies and agencies tasked with their support and implementation – thereby reducing the space for dissenting voices.’

Universal human rights – the Vienna Declaration

In June 1993, representatives of 171 UN Member States adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference on Human Rights, presenting a plan to strengthen human rights work around the world.

Building on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established in 1948, the Vienna Declaration confirms the universality of human rights. It refutes those who argued that human rights were not universal, but historically, socially and politically contextual and contingent.

The Vienna Declaration states that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and inter-related, as well as emphasising that international action to promote and protect human rights is a priority for the UN.

It also highlights the importance of state accountability: ‘While the significance of regional and national particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.’

Source: UN Human Rights Office of the High

D’Alessandra says this is true not only for the UNHRC but for a number of other UN bodies that deal with human rights issues. ‘Take peacekeeping, for example: if, on the one hand, China has increased its overall financial and military support for peacekeeping missions, on the other hand it has waged an internal battle at the UN to see its human rights component reduced, if not entirely dismantled. This is part of a broader pattern. At the same time, it has fought to shrink the space for civil society groups in UN deliberations.’

Key to the success of this internal battle has been China’s willingness to use its financial assets to influence the way recipients of its aid vote at the international level. According to Human Rights Watch, Chinese diplomats defeated 12 UNCHR resolutions critical of China’s human rights record between 1990 and 2005, in part by providing economic incentives to developing country ‘swing states’.

More recently, in June 2017, Greece vetoed a European Union condemnation of China’s human rights record at the UN. This was the first time the EU had failed to make such a statement at the UNHRC, undermining its much-cherished status as a defender of human rights. Greece’s decision was widely attributed to huge Chinese investment in the country, such as China Ocean Shipping Company’s e280.5m acquisition of a 51 per cent stake in Piraeus Port on the Mediterranean.

In addition, a recent study found that African countries that voted with China at the UN received an 85 per cent increase in aid. Much of this is linked to infrastructure and development projects under President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

‘By fuelling debt dependency, advancing a China First development model, and undermining good governance and human rights, China is offering a deeply illiberal approach to regions that contain about 65–70 per cent of the world’s population and one-third of its economic output,’ warns D’Alessandra. ‘Combined with China’s direct attack on human rights law and norms at the UN and other international fora, this is a clearly worrying trend.’

China’s domestic crackdown

In November 2018, China underwent its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the international peer-to-peer mechanism through which each Member State of the UN is reviewed by all the others. The UPR underlined a number of issues that had led Human Rights Watch to conclude in its 2017 report that domestic human rights in China was at its worst since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. About 20 Member States highlighted China’s repressive policies against the Turkic Muslim population in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. The government in Beijing implemented rules in April 2017 that prohibit a number of traditional practices of the Uighur Muslims in an effort to combat extremism in the region.

Pro-democracy activists mourn the death of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo outside China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China, 13 July 2017
© REUTERS/Bobby Yip

‘China thought that few people were paying attention to the internment of ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang,’ says Richardson. ‘It was encouraging to see some governments being more aggressive than they might have been during China’s latest UPR.’ She adds: ‘China’s not going to get a world that’s completely unaware of its behaviour. People are pushing back.’

According to a recent report by the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, the Chinese government is seeking to codify its approach to so-called political dissenters through a combination of new legislation and the criminalisation of human rights activities. For example, a law restricting the funding and operations of critical foreign non-governmental organisations came into effect in January 2017, which severely curtails their ability to support civil society organisations in China.

And ever since it implemented its National Security Law in July 2015, China has cracked down on the activities of human rights lawyers and activists, claiming they threaten national security. This has taken the form of restricting their travel or detaining them, threatening their family members and, in extreme cases, torturing and imprisoning them, and preventing medical treatment. High-profile cases include the deaths of activists Cao Shunli in 2014 and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in 2017.

‘If any other government in the world was locking up activists and lawyers, there would be urgent need for access to the reasons,’ says Richardson. ‘But China’s power within the UN is so great that individual state pushback will not stop them.’ The IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) has expressed serious concerns to President Xi through a number of representations. In the last representation, made in February 2018, the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG,

Co-Chair of the IBAHRI and a former Australian high court judge, wrote that ‘the unwarranted interference with the professional duties of lawyers’ was ‘an unacceptable intrusion on the independence of the legal profession which undermines the rule of law’. He called on President Xi to ‘take all possible measures to ensure that lawyers can carry out their legitimate professional activities without fear of intimidation, harassment or interference, in accordance with international human rights standards.’ The IBAHRI also drew attention to domestic and international law provisions that protect standards of due process and fair trial rights.

The Brookings Institution warns there will be ‘dire consequences for the international human rights order’ if China is able to continue to spread its message of non-interference in domestic affairs. The US think tank recommends revitalising a cross-regional coalition of democratic states to consolidate the gains of the human rights system, fight Chinese attempts to undermine them, and protect civil society’s vital role as an independent watchdog for upholding universal norms.

‘Lots of us have made these recommendations, but if governments do not come together to try and put pressure on Beijing, then it’s hard to see what will change,’ says Richardson.

With China seeking credibility at the UNHRC, UN Member States have a particular responsibility to press China on its human rights violations, says D’Alessandra. ‘With international tensions heightened and the world’s return to great power politics, normative agendas no longer carry the day. Against this background, it’s evermore important not just for traditional defenders of human rights norms to come forward, but for all actors, especially those in a position to speak directly to the leadership in Beijing, to make their voices heard.’

There is no universal road for the development of human rights in the world. The cause of human rights must be promoted on the basis of the national conditions

2018 national report by
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

This has started to happen in countries such as Malaysia and Sierra Leone, which have recently cancelled Chinese loans and rejected China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. ‘These countries could come together and go back to Beijing,’ says Richardson. ‘They could continue to engage but try to change the terms of the engagement.’

With China’s human rights record worsening, it appears to be shifting scrutiny away from its actions by stifling the UN’s ability to conduct oversight and emphasising the importance of state-led development of human rights. The challenge for the world’s governments is to find an alternative path to the Chinese model of protecting human rights and social stability.

Stephen Mulrenan is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at stephen@prospect-media.net