Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Dueling Statements, and Visions, at UN Human Rights Council

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet makes remarks during the annual high-level panel discussion on human rights mainstreaming at the 46th session of the Human Rights Council on February 22, 2021. Image credit: UN photo by Violaine Martin

The United Nations Human Rights Council is an ideological battleground between China and its allies and the United States and its allies. Its 47th regular session (hereafter HRC 47) took place from June 21 to July 14, 2021 in Geneva. At the start of the session, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in Geneva Leslie E. Norton delivered the Joint Statement on the Human Rights Situation in Xinjiang on behalf of 44 countries. In response, Belarus delivered a joint statement from 69 countries refuting criticisms against China and urging non-interference.

In recent years, HRCs and other UN sessions have seen dueling statements expressing concern over China’s human rights record on the one hand and lauding it on the other. Two blocs have emerged since a joint letter at HRC 41 in 2019. While each of the UN’s 193 member states has its own motivations, some factors offer insights into how countries are negotiating the US-China relationship and the current human rights climate.

Dueling Statements

The Canada statement at HRC 47 expressed concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) citing “credible reports” of rights abuses including widespread arbitrary detention, surveillance, restrictions on fundamental freedoms, torture, and gender-based violence by authorities. It urges China to allow “immediate, meaningful, and unfettered access” to the region and to implement the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

The signatories to the Canadian statement are predominantly developed democracies in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. European states make up the majority. Most of the signatories have been outspoken against China’s human rights record and, as with Asia-Pacific signatories, have geopolitical concerns about China. Ukraine allegedly backed out of signing the statement when China threatened to halt sending vaccines. Israel was reportedly pressured to join by the United States

All of the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States – signed the Canadian statement. In 2020, the G7 countries made up at least a third of China’s foreign trade revenue. Except for Japan and the United States, the G7 countries are also members of the China-launched Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The countries that signed the Canadian statement likely account for at least 50 percent of China’s export revenue. Trade between the United States and China, meanwhile, has surged to record levels, with some reports writing that it is “as if the protracted tariff war and pandemic never happened.” 

Belarus’ counter statement emphasized the importance of “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of states and non-interference in internal affairs.” It implies that the Canadian statement is politically motivated and based on disinformation and double standards. The statement originally had 65 signatories with four nations joining later, and has broad support among the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Twenty-three of the OIC’s 57 members did not sign the Belarus statement, nor did most of China’s major trading partners.

Table 1. HRC 47 Statement Signatories

There were notable omissions. Both Turkey and Kazakhstan have not signed either statement despite cultural links to persecuted groups in China. Multiple ASEAN nations, particularly those that are Muslim-majority and/or have concerns about the South China Sea, have not aligned with either bloc. Several of the world’s largest economies have also been absent, including India and Brazil. South Korea, which enjoys strong economic ties with both but is politically aligned with the United States, refrained from signing, as did Singapore. Finally, four members of the EU have not signed either statement: Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, and Malta.
As mentioned, HRC 47 was not the first instance of dueling statements on China’s human rights record. At HRC 41 in 2019, 25 nations signed a letter criticizing China while a counter letter garnered 50 signatories. At HRC 44, the UK issued a joint statement signed by 27 nations; in turn, two statements supported China—one on Xinjiang issued by Belarus signed by 53 states and another on Hong Kong issued by Cuba signed by 46 states. At HRC 46, Belarus and Cuba switched: Belarus offered a statement on Hong Kong for 69 states while Cuba’s statement on Xinjiang garnered 64 signatories. There was no joint measure critical of China; instead, 21 member states made 34 separate remarks criticizing China’s human rights record. 

Similarly, in the 74th session of the General Assembly, the UK issued a statement on behalf of 23 states, which was met by a counter statement from 54 member states. In the 75th session, Germany issued a joint statement on behalf of 39 states. Cuba supported Xinjiang policy on behalf of 45 states and Pakistan supported Hong Kong policy on behalf of 55 states.  

Statements critical of China have been issued by the UK, Germany, and Canada while joint actions supporting China have been issued by Belarus, Cuba, and Pakistan. Both Belarus and Cuba are among the last communist dictatorships in their regions, and both have faced political turmoil and threat of regime change in recent months. Should political instability in Cuba result in the fall of the regime, China could lose one of its key supporters. 

Table 2. Selected Actions at the UN

The joint statements have consistent messaging. Statements critical of China have expressed concern over human rights, noted China’s obligations under international law, recommended that China implement the CERD observations, and urged China to allow meaningful, unfettered access to independent observers. Statements in support of China consistently accuse the other bloc of being politically motivated, commend China’s actions in Xinjiang as human rights achievements through the right to development and, because there have been no terrorist attacks in Xinjiang in three consecutive years, the right to life. 

Regions Beyond the Rhetoric

The most obvious bloc is that of the developed democratic economies of North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific that express concern over human rights in China. Canada’s HRC 47 statement was the most supported statement yet: 44 states signed on, 23 from the EU and 32 in Europe. This corresponds to recent polling in which publics in 17 advanced economies said China does not respect the personal freedoms of its citizens. Of the nations surveyed—all in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific—13 signed the HRC 47 statement. Several of these nations have designated China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide in their domestic political bodies. Of the remainder, South Korea, Greece, and Singapore have not signed any statement; the latter two reported favorable views of China, and Singapore was the only public to prefer close economic ties with China and to express confidence in Xi Jinping. However, the United States induces uncertainty. Of the 16 other nations, a third said that the United States considered their foreign policy interests. While most described the United States as a “somewhat reliable partner,” most believe that it is no longer a good model of democracy. 

Much has been made of the Islamic world’s support for China’s actions in Xinjiang. Belarus’ HRC 47 statement was signed by 13 MENA countries and the majority of OIC countries. Only one OIC member, Albania, signed Canada’s statement. Muslim populations’ support for alleged genocide against a Muslim population has been explained as a byproduct of strong-man rule because many MENA, OIC, and Central Asian nations have authoritarian features. However, polling has found consistently positive views of China and Xi Jinping even when support for the United States increased among seven MENA countries. Arab publics consistently view the United States as a larger economic threat than China. Across 13 Arab countries, 58 percent viewed US policy towards the region negatively while a majority held positive views on China’s foreign policy. These views persist even though respondents view China as a less desirable employer and a source of inferior goods, and they express broad support for democracy, which suggests that China’s argument for sovereignty is attractive. Dismissing the Muslim world’s support of China as a product of illiberalism may validate China’s narrative that human rights are individualistic western ideals used to infiltrate and subjugate otherwise sovereign states. 

Among ASEAN countries, seven of its 10 members did not sign either statement. The Philippines stopped supporting China after HRC 41. While sharing the Philippines’ concerns over the South China Sea, Indonesia and Malaysia are also facing pressure, both external and internal, over the situation of the Uyghurs in their country. A 2021 survey of government and civil society experts in ASEAN nations found that support for the United States has increased in recent years. A 2020 poll found 79 percent identified China as the most influential power in the region, with 72 percent expressing wariness over this: “China’s economic influence is deeply felt but not very well received in the country.” Still, China is favored in many ASEAN countries with the United States being the overwhelming preference in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Africa has been a consistent source of support for China at the UN, even as some of the continent’s largest economies avoid statements. (In a surprise development, Côte d’Ivoire issued a statement expressing concern over actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet despite not signing either statement.) A survey of 18 African countries found that while the United States is still the preferred development model, in countries where China had invested mainly in infrastructure, perceptions have held steady or improved. Less than half of those polled said they were aware of Chinese loans or financial assistance to their country but among those who were, 77 percent were concerned about loan repayment and a majority (58 percent) said that their governments had overborrowed. This might indicate that narratives about debt traps and asset seizures are having an effect. 

Like Africa, the region consisting of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has seen hefty Chinese investment. According to the Congressional Research Service, 19 LAC countries have Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the region and total trade between China and the region reached $316 billion in 2019. Accumulated loans from 2005 to 2020 totaled $137 billion, with top recipients being Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina—only one of which signed the Cuba statement. Public polling in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico suggests that people have more positive views of China than negative, and these ratings have improved since 2014; these publics were more likely to name the United States as the top threat but say that they have good economic relations with both countries.

Trading Onwards

A look at China’s top trading partners suggests that any battle for hearts and minds is occurring separate from trade deals. China’s top 10 countries for imports and exports are dominated by Canada statement signatories—the United States, Germany—and non-signers—Brazil, South Korea. While supporters like Russia and the odd MENA state factor in at lower levels, China’s economy is still supported by the countries it accuses of weaponizing human rights. Amongst ongoing calls for decoupling and an economic reality that suggests the opposite, there are several issues to consider moving forward.

Investment and attention seem to matter. In public polls, countries that receive investments tend to have more favorable opinions of a country, which sometimes translates into UN support or at least the absence of opposition. The United States and Europe have recently announced initiatives to compete with China’s BRI, and vaccine diplomacy, as seen by the Ukraine case, remains a crucial issue for international engagement.

Narratives can create opportunities. Narratives on predatory investment may have sway in regions lacking a power monopoly; China-led narratives about sovereignty at the very least provide effective cover for post-colonial societies, some of whom may be truly weary of invasion. Similarly, China’s human rights whataboutism can deflect attention from criticism. It has highlighted the United States’ history of genocide and aggression in the MENA region. At the same time that Canada issued its statement, reports of mass graves at its relocation schools revealed its own human rights abuses. China even issued its own joint statement expressing “deep concerns” on human rights in the United Kingdom largely due to severe systemic racism.

China’s accusations of political bias might seem contrived to western audiences, but the United States has at times taken a similar approach. The Bush administration declined to join the HRC in 2006 when the HRC replaced the Human Rights Commission, which was widely seen as ineffective and even counterproductive. The Bush presidency also cited anti-Israel bias as a reason for non-involvement, and the United States was one of four nations—with Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau—to vote against the HRC’s formation. Belarus, Iran, and Venezuela abstained. During the Obama administration, the United States joined and was elected to the HRC. In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the HRC, again citing anti-Israel bias as the reason.

On June 19, 2018, then-Ambassador to the United Nations announced the US withdrawal from the HRC. Image credit: C-Span

Similarly, China has used the US-led war on terror to justify its actions. Many Western countries have expressed indignation at China’s actions without acknowledging parallels to US programs of extraordinary rendition, extrajudicial drone killings, and the “off-shoring” of refugees by developed democracy economies. This helps reinforce China’s narrative that human rights are culturally biased, politicized devices. Ignoring these aspects may reinforce China’s notion that the choice between the US and China-led narratives on human rights is a political one, as opposed to one rooted in international law and morality. 

The Biden administration seems to be progressing on some of these fronts. The administration’s statement on key outputs from HRC 47 listed achievements such as co-sponsoring resolutions in human rights in Syria and the human rights of migrants, leading events on Hong Kong’s National Security Law and business and human rights, and cooperating on a new mechanism to combat systemic racism. It also confirmed that the United States will seek election to the HRC leadership for 2022-2024.