Last week, China was appointed to a seat on the Consultative Group of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Jiang Duan, an official at the Chinese Mission in Geneva, was nominated and confirmed by the Asia regional grouping and will hold the seat until March 2021. The appointment places China on an influential panel that oversees candidate recommendations for UN human rights experts and is likely to raise some concerns given China’s less than perfect record on human rights issues.
As China has become more integrated in international organizations over the past 40 years or so, particularly within UN bodies and agencies, the scope of issue areas it is willing to not only engage with but also shape has expanded.
The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly, was established in 2006, replacing the UN Commission on Human Rights. The council’s 47 members are elected for three-year terms and are distributed on the basis of equitable geographic rotation according to the UN’s regional grouping system: 13 members for Africa, 13 for Asia-Pacific, six for eastern Europe, eight for Latin American and the Caribbean, and seven for the “Western European and Others States Group.” China previously held a seat as a UNHRC member from 2006 to 2009, 2010 to 2012, 2014 to 2016, and 2017 to 2019.
The council’s mandate is to promote and protect human rights around the world, particularly through the mechanisms of the Universal Periodic Review, which examines the human rights performance of all UN members; the advisory committee; the complaints procedure; and the “special procedures,” which empower the UNHRC to gather expert observations and advice on human rights issues with either country-specific or thematic mandates.
The Consultative Group, the body to which China was just appointed, is charged with recommending candidates to fill positions according to the mandates of the Special Procedures, the Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Expert Mechanism on the Right of Development. The panel consists of five ambassadors, each representing the five UN regional groups, and facilitates the appointment of experts on issues of freedom of speech and religion; water and sanitation; housing; food; health; poverty; and conditions in countries such as Cambodia, Iran, Myanmar, and North Korea.
While human rights concerns have historically been a point of contention between China and its relations with the United States and western European states (this was particularly acute in the years following the events of June 1989 at Tiananmen Square), any prior semblance of international unity on speaking out against Chinese domestic policies appears to have frayed of late, or dropped from the agenda.
In recent years, China has actively submitted proposals to the UNHRC as a member, albeit not without pushback. These resolutions have been challenged for their framing of human rights issues and the right to development within a state-centric approach, privileging the sovereignty of states over groups of people and communities. Experts have been outspoken about the implications of such proposals, raising concern that an overemphasis on dialogue and consensus might dilute the commitments to transparency and accountability. Separately, in July 2019, two coalitions of states sent competing letters to the UNHRC about China’s Xinjiang policies — one criticizing China for its massive detention program and the other opposing the “politicization” of human rights issues and supporting Chinese counterterrorism and deradicalization efforts. More recently, there has been heightened international outcry about human rights in China amid the harsh measures Beijing put in place to combat the coronavirus.
U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and ranking member of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, condemned Jiang Duan’s appointment to the UNHRC’s Consultative Group. “There is no justification whatsoever in empowering a Chinese government official, Jiang Duan, to investigate human rights abuses until there is a reckoning with regard to China’s own record,” Smith said.
Despite U.S. legislative efforts to hold China more accountable on human rights issues, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the UNHRC in June 2018 — removing itself from the UN’s primary body focused on human rights. “China and its allies are filling the vacuum and, over time, will neuter if not fundamentally redefine the core precepts of universal human rights,” wrote Ted Piccone, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
China’s UNHRC appointment aligns with the country’s ascent to more leadership positions within the United Nations and deeper investment in the UN system. Chinese representatives currently head four out of 15 UN specialized agencies. With the United States under Trump’s leadership retreating from multilateral diplomacy, “China may continue to find ways to fill the financial and manpower leadership roles the United States seems to be abandoning,” write Courtney J. Fung and Shing-Hon Lam. Separately, Kristine Lee cautions that in the long term, “If Beijing succeeds in retooling the UN to its purposes, China won’t become more like the rest of the world—the rest of the world will become more like China.”
A more active and influential China within the UN is likely to bring about implications for how the system views its purpose and aims. But China’s UN involvement need not be unidirectional, and will ultimately be contingent on the policy issue, the product of dynamics within broader global governance institutions, as well as the influence of China’s own domestic pressures.