China Is Getting Better at Undermining Global Human Rights

It doesn’t help that the Trump administration doesn’t seem to mind.

Policemen escort a handcuffed man on Oct. 12, 2005 in Meishan of Sichuan Province, southwest China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
Policemen escort a handcuffed man on Oct. 12, 2005 in Meishan of Sichuan Province, southwest China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

Since taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump has managed to repeatedly steer the national conversation in all sorts of directions, from the merits of NFL protests to still-unproven allegations that his presidential campaign was wiretapped by the FBI. The national dialogue often lurches from one subject to another, which means that certain key issues are often more or less ignored.

Last month, Human Rights Watch, the leading U.S.-based human rights advocacy organization, released a comprehensive 96-page report on efforts by the Chinese government to manipulate and undercut key United Nations human rights mechanisms, both to shield itself from rights criticism and to protect its friends and allies. (Disclosure: I worked for Human Rights Watch over a decade ago as a researcher and remain a fan of its work.) The report, The Costs of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms, failed to garner much attention, perhaps in part because it was competing against a White House noise machine that is louder than any other in American history.

Whatever the reason, it’s too bad that the report didn’t get more coverage. It tells an important story. For years, Chinese officials have used an array of tools to blunt criticism of its deteriorating human rights record. Most crucially, state security agents regularly warn Chinese activists against working with or even contacting U.N. human rights officials in Geneva. Some have even been detained in order to stop them from traveling to key U.N. meetings. Other activists who have managed to get to Geneva have been punished once they return. These tactics have taken a real toll: Many Chinese activists are reluctant to work with U.N. officials, or with the international nongovernmental organizations that feed information to U.N. bodies. As a result, U.N. experts seeking to review China’s rights record face difficulty in gathering information directly from human rights defenders themselves.

At the same time, Beijing has used both its political clout and bureaucratic maneuvering to block international NGOs that might be critical of China from obtaining so-called observer status at the U.N. (This status is a form of accreditation for civil society organizations, making it easier for them to participate in U.N. confabs.) In some cases, NGOs engaged in high-quality work on issues that China considers sensitive have been blocked for years at a time, while China poses various worthless questions about their background that must be answered before an application can proceed. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, had to deal with bureaucratic blockages from China and other countries for a full four years before finally being granted accreditation in 2016.

China also looks to influence the debate within key U.N. human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council. Whenever China’s rights record comes up for debate at the Human Rights Council, China calls on friendly states to propagandize on its behalf. Because these governments know that China will return the favor when they themselves are up for review, they are only happy to oblige. In 2013, for example, the Cuban delegation to the Human Rights Council openly praised the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissent, saying that it “appreciated measures against criminal activities and encouraged China to continue defending its sovereignty.” China later returned the favor, stating that it “congratulated Cuba on its achievements in the field of human rights.” Such diplomatic horse-trading makes an apolitical, fact-based assessment of a country’s progress on human rights all the more difficult.

The Human Rights Watch report is a must-read because it gives us a sense of what a Chinese-led world order might look like: International values, including the protection and promotion of human rights, would be subverted to state interests time and time again, and only those states that completely lack diplomatic chips to cash in with states like China would face meaningful scrutiny.

And yet, none of the Chinese tactics that Human Rights Watch documents are particularly new. In essence, The Costs of International Advocacy documents the intensification of long-term trends that have been a key part of China’s approach to the U.N. human rights system for decades. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, China has sought to zealously defend itself against human rights criticism, and it has largely succeeded. And over the past two decades, it has often — though by no means always — shielded key allies from criticism, including North Korea and pre-democratization Myanmar. And, sadly, official intimidation of Chinese activists to keep them from working with U.N. officials in Geneva is also a long-lived phenomenon.

What’s different today versus 10 or 20 years ago is the level of influence China enjoys, and the growing unwillingness of some states to push back against Chinese manipulation and intimidation. In other words, China is able to make greater and more effective use of its toolkit, at a lower reputational cost. Government officials in Washington, London, and Brussels should take note and find ways to bolster the U.N. human rights system as a whole.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the White House at least, there is no evidence that the United States government will take action to push back against China at the U.N. Instead, the Trump administration is itself taking steps to undermine both the U.N. as a whole and its human rights system in particular in ways that actually dovetail with China’s own efforts.

The fact that China often looks to resist and even subvert global human rights mechanisms should come as no surprise. What is surprising, and sad, is that a U.S. administration — and, indeed, many of the top leaders of one of America’s two major political parties — should similarly seek to undermine important global institutions that the United States itself helped to create. Both before and after taking office, President Trump has been unsparing in his criticism of the United Nations. In a March 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Trump bemoaned the “utter weakness and incompetence of the United Nations.” In December, then-President-elect Trump offered a somewhat more mixed view: He acknowledged the world body’s “great potential” but lamented that “right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time.”

Less than a year into his administration, the fights between the Trump White House and key U.N. human rights bodies have already begun, and they may well deepen in the years to come. Several U.N. mechanisms have rightly criticized Trump over his handling of immigration from Muslim countries (the so-called “Muslim ban”), his equivocal comments on the use of violence by white nationalist protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his repeated attacks on American journalists and media outlets. White House officials have largely rejected the criticisms.

Trump didn’t introduce U.N.-bashing to the GOP, of course — it has been a staple of Republican rhetoric and action for decades. In 2012, for example, Republican senators successfully led the charge against the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ensuring that the United States would not — at least for the foreseeable future — ratify a groundbreaking treaty that was based in part on the watershed 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. Earlier that same year, 34 Republican senators wrote to then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) to express their intent to vote against ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 convention that was first submitted to the Senate for ratification by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Those are but two of many international treaties that have languished in the Senate due to Republican hostility.

To be fair, not many Democrats have taken the time to stand up for the U.N. and its human rights bodies. The U.N. is often both vital and rather unlovely, as many political entities are. At least in the United States, the U.N. has a real PR problem: At times, the U.N.’s very real flaws garner more attention than its strengths, making it all the more difficult to speak out on its behalf. And then there’s the hard and fast political reality: Speaking out in support of U.N. human rights mechanisms won’t win a senator or a congresswoman many votes, especially in swing districts in Ohio or Florida or Iowa. At best, support for international institutions, including those that regularly criticize America’s human rights record, is a net neutral factor, one that won’t matter to most constituents. At worst, as Republican rhetoric has shown, it can cost a candidate at least a few much-needed votes.

It may be quite some time before China changes its approach to human rights at the U.N. But a change in the U.S. approach is achievable: If the underlying domestic politics surrounding the U.N. shift, then many political leaders will alter their approach accordingly. In other words, if the American people can make clear their continued support for the postwar international institutions that the United States helped create, and that still, on balance, further American interests and ideals, then they will find that many GOP representatives in Washington will change their tune.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Chinese citizens have virtually no role in determining their government’s approach to key foreign-policy questions. That won’t change anytime soon: Beijing would not look favorably on domestic criticism of its efforts to weaken U.N. human rights organs. Americans, of course, face no such restrictions. Those of us who believe in human rights as a key element of the liberal international order should use our voice and our vote to push Washington to resume its role as a stalwart defender of the U.N. human rights system. The vitality and the effectiveness — and possibly even the viability — of these U.N. rights bodies may well depend on it.

Thomas Kellogg is Executive Director of Georgetown Law Asia.

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