Chinese Influence in the U.N. Threatens Human Rights Globally

COMMENTARY Asia

Chinese Influence in the U.N. Threatens Human Rights Globally

Sep 16, 2022 3 min read

Commentary By

Michael Cunningham

Visiting Fellow, Asian Studies Center

Brett D. Schaefer

Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center

Activists hold a demonstration against China's human rights abuses towards Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities in Jakarta, Indonesia on January 4, 2021. Eko Siswono Toyudho / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The United Nations finally released its report on the human rights concerns in China’s Xinjiang region, and its conclusions are damning.

That a country with such a poor human rights record wields so much influence over the U.N. human rights system is troubling.

The international community still can regain control of the human rights narrative, and it must do so before it is too late.

The United Nations finally released its report on the human rights concerns in China’s Xinjiang region, and its conclusions are damning.

The report, compiled by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), chronicles massive human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, forced labor, involuntary sterilization, sexual violence, and other crimes. While stopping short of the definitive declaration of genocide that the U.S. State Department issued in 2021, it acknowledges that the widespread abuses “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

The U.N. went to great lengths to investigate and verify alleged abuses, including by interviewing witnesses and seeking visits to China. However, according to the OHCHR report, repeated efforts to seek information from the Chinese government did not elicit a formal response, although the Chinese government did submit a lengthy 131-page response once OHCHR shared its draft report. Informal pressure, however, was intense, and news reports indicated that parts of the OHCHR report were substantially rewritten to accommodate Chinese complaints up until hours before its release.

We may never know the extent to which Chinese pressure succeeded in toning down the report’s findings. What we do know is that Beijing obstructed the investigation, limited its access to first-hand information about Xinjiang, and managed to delay the report’s release by months.

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U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet deserves some credit for approving the belated release of the report, despite relentless pushback from Beijing. Indeed, China enticed about 40 other countries to sign a letter urging Bachelet not to release the report on Xinjiang.

But her decision was far from a profile in courage. Nearly a full year passed between Ms. Bachelet’s September 2021 statement that the report was being finalized and its publication this month. Ms. Bachelet was also played for a fool during her trip to Xinjiang earlier this summer. Indeed, the trip went so badly that many believe it directly led to her decision not to seek a second term as High Commissioner.

When the report was finally publicly released, Ms. Bachelet was minutes from the end of her term in office, safely ducking the consequences of her decision.

The best that can be said about the timing is that at least her successor will not have to deal with the decision to release the report. He must, however, deal with the ramifications—both anger from Beijing and criticism that the report failed to accuse Beijing of genocide.

That a country with such a poor human rights record wields so much influence over the U.N. human rights system is troubling. That it does so without even ranking among OHCHR’s top donors hints at the sophistication of its influence. China contributed just $800,000 to the OHCHR (the 25th largest donor) in 2021, compared to nearly $27 million by the United States (the 2nd largest donor). Yet, its influence rivals that of the U.S.

The OHCHR is hardly an outlier. Indeed, the Xinjiang human rights report saga is just the latest example of Beijing using its influence and pressure to bully the international community into serving its interests.

Across the U.N. system, China is punching above its weight. Until recently, a Chinese national led more U.N. specialized agencies than any other nation. China is routinely elected to a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, and that body—the most prestigious human rights organization in the U.N. system—has never passed a condemnatory resolution on China’s well-documented human rights violations. The Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised Beijing’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, including echoing claims that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the disease, directly contributing to the early spread of the pandemic.

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Beijing’s success is due to its relentless pressure on the organizations, its economic leverage over developing countries, and its diplomatic support for like-minded authoritarian governments, which in turn support its positions and goals in the U.N.

Beijing’s end-game is clear. It seeks to suppress international criticism of China and weaken global human rights norms, ultimately replacing them with its own set of authoritarian norms packaged in human rights language. It has had considerable success so far, and its outsized influence threatens human rights not only in China but globally.

The importance of the OHCHR officially acknowledging Beijing's inhumane and illegal practices is enormous. It demonstrates that the game isn’t over yet—that the international human rights system can work if pushed hard enough. The international community still can regain control of the human rights narrative, and it must do so before it is too late.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times