At the U.N., China and Russia Score Win in War on Human Rights

The balance of power shifts amid a retreat by Trump and Europe.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
China's U.N. ambassador,  Liu Jieyi, votes to bar discussion of North Korea's human rights record at the U.N. Security Council in New York on Dec. 22, 2014. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
China's U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, votes to bar discussion of North Korea's human rights record at the U.N. Security Council in New York on Dec. 22, 2014. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has quietly begun to dismantle a key cell within his office charged with ensuring that the international body’s sprawling political and humanitarian agencies promote human rights.

The move comes mere months after China, with the support of Russia and other critics of the U.N. human rights mission, led a successful effort in an obscure but powerful U.N. budget committee to block a request by Guterres to fund the cell, which was established in 2014.

The development is just one of the latest signs that Beijing and Moscow are gradually gaining ground in their geopolitical struggle against the West to roll back decades of advances on human rights at the U.N. But human rights proponents claim that the U.N. chief, as well as the United States and European countries, has done too little to resist the trend.

On a range of fronts, China and Russia have grown increasingly assertive in their efforts to curtail human rights advocacy, targeting financing for U.N. rights programs, barring human rights defenders from participating in U.N. meetings, and ratcheting up pressure on smaller countries to vote alongside them in the U.N. Security Council. They have tapped into a growing aversion to advocacy from scores of governments that resent what they see as the West’s manipulation of human rights causes to punish political rivals.

“China is the real playmaker here. It has cleverly combined positive messaging over climate change and development with an increasingly uncompromising approach to limiting human rights,” says Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It can get away with this because a lot of diplomats view Chinese engagement at the U.N. as insurance against Trump walking away [from multilateralism].”

Only last week, Beijing and Moscow prevailed in an effort to block a U.S.-backed proposal to have the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, brief the Security Council in a formal session on flagrant rights abuses in Syria.

The United States required a vote by at least nine members of the 15-nation council to schedule the meeting. But the effort collapsed when representatives of the council’s three African countries — Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, and Ivory Coast — broke with the Western camp and abstained.

The final stroke that killed the initiative was delivered by Ivory Coast, a former French colony that had privately vowed to vote alongside France and the United States but defected at the last moment, according to a Security Council diplomat. The reversal, officials say, followed a strenuous diplomatic pressure campaign by China.

The United States downplayed the significance of the defeat, arguing that it, the United Kingdom, and France ultimately outmaneuvered China and Russia by arranging an informal briefing by Zeid to council members.

A U.S. official speaking to Foreign Policy challenges the notion that human rights has been in retreat at the U.N. since President Donald Trump took office.

“On the contrary, the United States has been gaining ground on human rights at the U.N.,” the official says, citing a number of human rights meetings sponsored by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

“We held the first Security Council meeting on human rights during our presidency last year and have held country-specific U.N. meetings on human rights abuses in North Korea and Venezuela in New York and Geneva,” the official says. “We held a briefing to the Security Council on the crackdown on protesters in Iran. All of these show a larger human rights profile across the U.N. system, which unsurprisingly puts countries like Russia and China — who are no friends to human rights — on the defense.”

But other observers see a subtle shift in the council’s balance of power at the U.N., where states opposed to human rights advocacy — including China, Egypt, Pakistan, and Russia — have grown increasingly assertive in pressing their case. At the same time, the United States and its European allies have shown less vigor in fighting for the cause.

As China’s share of the U.N. budget has ballooned in recent years, its diplomats have sought steeper cuts in U.N. spending. Their efforts have disproportionately targeted posts with a mandate to protect human rights from U.N. headquarters to the field, where they have sought to eliminate human rights posts in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

At the same time, China has become more assertive in curtailing the ability of independent human rights advocates to have their voices heard at the U.N. Chinese diplomats have begun to insist, for instance, that groups seeking to be accredited to speak at U.N. functions publicly recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

“China is pushing this stuff really hard,” says Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. But many countries that traditionally support human rights “mainly pay lip service to the need to keep human rights high on the agenda while barely lifting a finger to do anything about it. We aren’t going to be able to fight this sitting down.”

The latest battle over human rights dates back to the spring of 2014, when Guterres’s predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, created the cell to implement his signature Human Rights Up Front initiative, which was established after criticism of the U.N.’s tepid response to the mass killing of tens of thousands of civilians by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009. The initiative was designed to encourage U.N. staff at headquarters and in the field to “take a principled stance and to act with moral courage to prevent serious and large-scale violations.”

The cell was largely funded outside the U.N.’s regular budget, relying on funding from Norway, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. The new U.N. chief, who supports the initiative in principle, last year sought funding from the U.N. General Assembly budget committee to underwrite the cost of the senior official in the secretary-general’s executive office. But the committee — which is run by U.N. member states — rejected the request in December.

The human rights cell, which once employed as many as five people, has continued to shrink. Today, Guterres plans to eliminate the post for the last remaining senior official and transfer his responsibilities to a senior aide, Fabrizio Hochschild, who is respected by human rights advocates, but they say he oversees too broad a portfolio to devote sufficient attention to human rights.

In an interview, Hochschild says Guterres wanted to preserve the cell but that he was blocked by the membership. “There is no question that the general climate for promoting respect for human rights has grown more difficult,” he says. “I don’t want to comment on individual member states, but there has been a much broader pushback on human rights than two member states.”

Still, Hochschild says that has not diminished Guterres’s commitment to promoting human rights.

“I would argue that Human Rights Up Front is victim of its own success — it is no longer a side issue in the secretary-general’s executive office,” he says. “It is at the heart of the secretary-general’s thinking. He has reorganized the whole internal governance [of his office] to do that better.”

Human rights advocates have expressed concern about the decision to shutter the office.

“Our conversations with member states indicate that the post — and the broader Human Rights Up Front Initiative — has widespread support, and the decision to eliminate it aligns with the desire of only a small minority of states,” a coalition of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the International Service for Human Rights, wrote in a letter to Guterres.

The group suggested that the U.N. chief might be able to find other funds to keep the initiative going, and the foreign ministers of five Nordic states have already signaled a willingness to help.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch