At UN Human Rights Council, China manœuvres to ensure its own impunity

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Geneva, Paris – In Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet, China is accused, by an increasingly active international community, of committing serious human rights violations. At the most recent session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, from 22 February to 23 March, China deployed a disturbing diplomatic strategy aiming to shirk responsibility and avoid accountability for these abuses. FIDH is alarmed by these manoeuvres to subvert international obligations on human rights. We underline the risks that this strategy of Chinese influence implies for the countries that follow it, in light of two new state endorsements of Beijing’s strategy.

The Human Rights Council is the Geneva-based body of the United Nations (UN) that monitors human rights violations around the world and makes recommendations to states. It is the place where the international community adopts resolutions that, for example, condemn military takeovers such as the one in Myanmar on 1 February, create independent mechanisms that investigate crimes against humanity – such as the Commission of Inquiry on Syria – and renew the mandates of independent experts such as the one on freedom of expression.

It is in this symbolic forum of the ideal of multilateral world governance, guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that China has chosen to respond to its detractors, demonstrating in the process its ability to convince states that are receptive to its vision of the world or too weakened economically and politically to oppose it.

On 5 and 12 March, Belarus and Cuba respectively delivered the joint statements of 71 and 64 countries in support of China’s repressive policy in the name of the principle of sovereignty. These states denounced "unfounded allegations" aimed at "curbing the growth of developing countries". These statements were in response to concerns expressed by several UN members, confirmed by several independent experts and NGOs. The latter have documented massive and systematic human rights violations perpetrated by Chinese authorities against ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet; and in Hong Kong, where Beijing intends to restore its authority by force.

“The support that some countries are giving to China’s authoritarian stance towards Hong Kong is worrying because it undermines the work of the UN human rights experts. States who hold values of democracy and human rights dear must not tolerate these attacks,”

Antoine Madelin, FIDH’s advocacy director

UN independent experts challenged

It was in reply to the presentation of the annual report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor on 5 March, that Belarus chose to support China. Finding support from 71 other countries, Minsk praised China for " having gott(en) rid of turbulence and gradually restored stability" in Hong Kong through the adoption of the much criticised National Security Law in June 2020. This statement is a further attack on the work of the independent experts, who have repeatedly denounced the human rights violations committed by the Chinese authorities. Indeed, Mary Lawlor and 29 other independent experts have criticised the draconian scope of this law, "the collective repression of the population, especially religious and ethnic minorities, in Xinjiang and Tibet," as well as the serious deterioration of the situation of human rights defenders.

The manœuvre was repeated by Cuba on 12 March, which congratulated China on behalf of 64 countries "for its progress in human rights, particularly in Xinjiang," and called all countries to abstain from interfering in Beijing’s internal affairs.

A two-pronged strategy

These pro-Beijing statements illustrate a broader strategy of Chinese diplomacy aiming to undermine international human rights standards. Resolution after resolution, the Chinese Communist Party seeks to impose its own jargon. "Mutually beneficial cooperation;" "people-centred development:" "community of shared future for mankind:" these terms deflect states’ obligation to respect individual rights, and introduce the idea that state sovereignty trumps human rights obligations.

However, this deliberate undermining of the UN’s protective role can have serious consequences for less influential states, such as many of those that expressed their support for China through these two statements. By sabotaging the very international norms that are supposed to protect their independence and voice in the event of a standoff with major powers, they deprive themselves of long-term recourse. Already, for example, local complaints of human rights abuses, filed to denounce the economic predation of Chinese state-owned companies, have been brushed aside in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

FIDH calls on the signatories of the two joint statements to take a principled approach in their foreign policy decisions, based on objective and documented information such as that produced by UN independent experts.

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