By Daniel Warner
It wasn’t until the very last moment that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) decided to release its report on the human rights situation in China. The Office was under enormous pressure by human rights groups to release it before the High Commissioner left office on August 31. The Chinese Government also put enormous pressure on the Office not to release the report or to release it with major revisions. While the report accused China of human rights violations that “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity” in its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in the Xinjiang region, its last minute release reduced its impact and was further evidence of China’s powerful nationalistic position in respecting international obligations.
High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet was criticised for her China agenda during her time in office. Her six-day visit in late May this year to Xinjiang aimed to raise awareness in China to human rights considerations. This was the first High Commissioner to visit the country in 17 years. She saw the visit as “an opportunity to hold direct discussions – with China’s most senior leaders – on human rights…with a view to supporting China in fulfilling its obligations under international human rights law.”
Various non-governmental organizations viewed the visit differently. Over 220 regional groups expressed concerns that the trip risked “walking into a propaganda minefield laid out by the Chinese Communist Party”.
Bachelet and her Office were torn about the report, whether to publish it, and if so what to publish. In explaining the delay, Bachelet said she “wanted to take the greatest care to deal with the responses and inputs received from the (Chinese) government last week”. And, in fact, in response to the final report, the United Nations attached a 131-page rebuttal by China in the form of an annex. Beijing called the report a “so-called assessment” that was “based on disinformation and lies”.
While it is easy to show how China has used its power to influence international institutions in Geneva such as the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, and that that it is obvious that the delay in publishing the report further calls into question the role of the United Nations in promoting human rights, this case is another example of the tension between universal norms and state sovereignty.
The Chinese believe in their system of human rights – millions have been taken out of poverty because of their emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights – while Western countries favour civil and political rights. Moreover, China prioritises state sovereignty over international institutions. “[China] will emphasize ‘constructive dialogue’. [As in] states between themselves should engage in constructive dialogue and make polite suggestions, but they should not be finger-pointing, they should not be laying blame,” Frédéric Mégret, co-director of the Center for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill University, was quoted as saying.
In the case of OHCHR’s report on human rights in China, state sovereignty had considerable influence.
Bachelet was in a conundrum as to how far she could go to criticize China. On the one hand, she favoured dialogue. On the other, she knew the situation “may constitute international crimes”. While Bachelet’s report does contain sharp criticism of China, its delay and last minute publication show how state sovereignty and nationalistic politics continue to exert enormous influence over international norms and international organisations.
Multilateralism is proving inadequate to deal with major global issues with no obvious alternative of an organisational basis in sight. The presidential campaign cry by Donald Trump of “Make America Great Again” reflects increased nationalism among great powers like the United States, China and Russia. The planet may be endangered, but there is no organisational structure for the moment to deal with its pressing problems. The UN has been impotent in promoting peace and security in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
A Geneva journalist correctly summarised the long delay in the China report’s release: “As for Beijing’s ability to exert a major influence on the UN and its human rights system, the Office of the High Commissioner has long resisted, but today the dike has been breached.” Bachelet and her Office tried to placate China by delaying the report while trying to satisfy human rights groups by publishing right at the last minute. We will see if the report’s criticism has any effect on China’s future policy. Trying to have it both ways in contradictory situations is never an optimal solution.
Daniel Warner is a Swiss-American political scientist and former Deputy to the Director, Graduate Institute Geneva.