China's Shadow over the UNHRC

Source article in Chinese: 何清涟:联合国人权理事会上的中国阴影
By He Qinglian on November 14, 2013

Following the election of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on November 12, countries with bad human rights records like China, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Algeria became its new members. Xinhua News Agency specially pointed out that China got elected with 176 votes (91% of total votes). When this story came out, twitter, the only place where Chinese netizens can freely express themselves, was boiled over. Some commented sarcastically that this was “an invasion of the UNHRC by barbaric tribes”. Cartoonist @badiucao drew a picture, the comeback of the Panda, which depicted a panda putting a barbed wire annulus with spikes onto the emblem of the UN.

UNHRC: long under the Chinese shadow
What the Chinese netizens do not know is that, beginning in the mid-1990s, the UNHRC and its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), has come under the shadow of and manipulated by China. Take a look back at why the UNCHR had to be restructured in 2006, and the original mechanism that was kept in place after the restructuring, one would see why the “panda” managed to come back.

Established in 1946, the UNCHR served the purpose of monitoring human rights conditions around the world. Starting from its 48th meeting in 1992, the UNCHR’s membership expanded to 53, and a system of filling seats by rotation was implemented, creating institutional loopholes for countries with poor human rights records to exploit. Such countries, including Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Zimbabwe had all gotten seats in the UNCHR. And China had not only formed an unjust alliance with these countries to reject human rights criticism, but also forged a coalition of interests with African and Latin American countries by offering them financial aids. Thus, under China’s manipulation, motions by the US condemning China’s human rights record were not passed on several occasions, and the UNCHR blocked criticism of Sudan, Zimbabwe and other countries despite their serious human rights issues. Countries that genuinely advocated human rights values became the isolated minority of the Commission instead.

One major victory that the aforementioned tyrannies secured in the UNCHR was France’s support of China teaming up with many UN member states with notorious human rights records to take the opportunity of the UNCHR election on May 3, 2001 to drive the US out of the Commission. Xinhua News Agency celebrated this result by commenting: “The public opinion saw the US losing this election as an indication that many UNCHR members were dissatisfied with America forcibly imposing its own human rights standard on others around the world. On December 10, 2003, the Commission even awarded the year’s human rights prize to Deng Pufang, son of Deng Xiaoping, the “butcher of Tiananmen Square”.

Each and every victory these tyrannies secured brought profound shame upon the term “human rights”, caused the Commission to suffer functional paralysis and led to strong criticism from human rights organizations of the world. The UN could not but replace the UNCHR with the UNHRC, which headquarters in Geneva and has 47 seats. Both Asia and Africa have 13 seats, Latin America and the Caribbean region 8 seats, Eastern Europe 6, and Western Europe and other regions 7. Each year at the UN General Assembly, a third of the seats of the UNHRC are open to election. Members are elected to three-year terms and can at most be elected twice in a row. After that, a member would have to wait one year before seeking a new term in the Council. China was a member of the UNHRC from 2006 till 2012.

Apart from a reduction of six member seats, the UNHRC has made few changes to the UNHCR’s member state election method or its procedure of reprimanding human rights violators. Although countries around the world understand the role China plays in the UNHRC, they could not exclude China from this new Council due to the country’s interest relations with other major powers. Hence, some human rights specialists are worried that the UNHRC would fail in the same way as the UNCHR did.

China’s diplomatic tactics at the UN

The Hundred Schools of Thought epitomized the political and military wisdom of ancient China. While foreigners understand the Art of War, they have little knowledge of the School of Diplomacy that sees, in its core beliefs, alliance as something built upon interests. Chinese politicians throughout various dynasties, however, learned these theories by heart and passed the knowledge onto subsequent generations. By the time diplomats of other countries see through the Chinese strategies, they are mostly already unable to break free from China’s confinement.

Human Rights in China published in the third issue of 2010 an interview with veteran UN human rights activist Felice Gaer. From it, readers can get a glimpse of how China forges alliance with members of the international community, making small countries from the third world to disregard any principle for the benefits offered by China.

First, “while China has accepted many human rights norms”, it often sought to make the monitoring mechanism toothless. For instance, China resorted to various methods to cripple the functions of the UNCHR, making it impossible to speak out, name names or pass any resolution that targeted China during meeting convened by the Commission.

Gaer pointed out expressly that those third world nations joined the Commission out of interests consideration. When a small country becomes a member of the UNCHR, it could get generous aids from China to build public facilities. Resolutions critical of China's human rights abuses were never passed because, every time when such resolutions were introduced, a country would raise a “no-action” motion requesting the resolutions be shelved. Ironically, the UNCHR had the characteristic of being lax to the tough and strict to the weak, all resolutions of condemnation concerning other countries were passed swiftly.

Second, China is adept at using the advantages of it being a permanent member of the Security Council, exploiting various international rules to its own end. Being a permanent member of the Security Council commands extraordinary influence; besides, China understands that it takes personnel and perseverance to deal with international organizations. With the UNCHR discredited for failing to take a stance on China's calamity of the Cultural Revolution and its pervasive human rights abuses, the UN Human Rights Council was established to take its place. China, with all its small country allies, was particularly vocal, with an aim to limit the new entity's scrutiny to a “cooperative mechanism”, indicating an alternative to engaging in country-specific scrutiny.

Third, the Chinese government is a master of intimidating NGO and governments of small countries, making them keep quiet. If a certain diplomat was critical of China, the country tended to retaliate with intimidation, threats, and even ruining the career of that diplomat. In the 1990s, Denmark introduced a resolution on China at the UNCHR. After that, China isolated the country, imposed trade sanction on it and carried out other threatening means, forcing Denmark to step back in the following year.
Representatives of private organizations were, as Gaer said in the interview, often “'engaged' by China with warnings, hostile photo-taking, and public denunciations”. These tactics of the Chinese government resulted in almost all of the UNHRC participants feeling exhausted, most of the countries and organizations would step back and cooperate with the aggressive China, only the US and a few other countries still asking direct questions, bringing up specific names and cases of human rights violations in the Universal Periodic Review process.

Many human rights specialists shared Gaer's experience, yet not everyone was willing to make disclosure. The HRIC interview with Gaer, available in both Chinese and English, is therefore a particularly valuable piece of information.

It could be said that during the election of UNHRC members this year, thanks to China's exploitation of the institutional loopholes of the Council and its success in forging an alliance using the thoughts of the School of Diplomacy, a phenomenon of tyrannies gathering together emerged. The “comeback of the panda” became possible because China made use of the UNHRC rules that stipulate its members to serve at most two consecutive three-year terms and then wait one year before seeking a new term. And China secured the votes of 176 countries by none other means than “forming a coalition of interests”. This plan could work so long as these countries believe they would get practical interests, or are simply given expectation of benefits if they vote for China.

However, because of the result of this election, the next three years would be somewhat funny: tyrannies that are basically entities with serious human rights abuse would, in the name of the UNHRC, reject condemnation motions set forth by international organizations or relevant agencies at the Council. This is akin to a sheep complaining to a council of wolves that one of them ate sheep, a UN version of aggrieved Chinese leapfrog petitioners getting to Beijing, after eluding their local officials who are determined to stop them by any means, to raise their cases with the central government—to no avail.