How to Defend the Global Human Rights System From Authoritarian Assault

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How to Defend the Global Human Rights System From Authoritarian Assault

Insights from Rana Siu Inboden. 

How to Defend the Global Human Rights System From Authoritarian Assault
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Rana Siu Inboden an adjunct assistant professor and LBJ School of Public Affairs Distinguished Scholar at the University of Texas-Austin, and author of “Defending the Global Human Rights System from Authoritarian Assault” (2023) report for the National Endowment for Democracy  is the 383rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Why are authoritarian states undermining the international human rights system?

I think there are two primary reasons. First, the international human rights system, especially the norms that embody freedom of speech, assembly, peaceful protest, and association, presents an existential threat to authoritarian countries. Dictators survive by engaging in behavior that violates international human rights norms, including employing repression, torture, and wrongful imprisonment. So they are strongly motivated to try to dismantle the international architecture that codifies these universal rights.

Second, authoritarian countries sense that democratic nations are not prioritizing the international human rights system, and therefore see an opportunity to erode norms and mechanisms and shape discussions and ideas in multilateral human rights bodies. For example, following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), China went on the offensive and began introducing HRC resolutions that endorse a number of the Chinese government’s regressive ideas. For example, the PRC mission has advanced resolutions that are intended to downgrade the role of international accountability by insisting that the best way to promote international human rights is through “mutually beneficial cooperation” or that less developed countries should be held to lower human rights standards.  

How are repressive governments coordinating to erode human rights accountability?

One of the chief vehicles for authoritarian coordination is conducted via a group of states that goes by the moniker the Like-Minded Group (LMG). Although “like-minded” is a frequently used diplomatic phrase, in this case what these countries are like-minded about is weakening human rights scrutiny.  The group has more than doubled in size. When it first emerged in the late 1990s in the U.N. Commission on Human Rights it usually numbered below 25 but now in the HRC the group often attracts the support of over 50 nations.  

The LMG coordinates to erode human rights accountability in several ways. First, whenever an LMG country faces human rights scrutiny, other LMG nations will flood the HRC proceedings with laudatory comments that drown out more incisive expressions of concern. Second, they advance a number of positions in the HRC that make it harder to hold governments accountable for their human rights violations, including favoring sovereignty at the expense of international monitoring; challenging the universality of human rights by asserting the importance of unique cultural, national, or domestic circumstances; and underscoring technical assistance and capacity building in lieu of genuine accountability, monitoring, and investigation.  

How do authoritarian governments leverage the U.N. Human Rights Council and the LMG to advance their agenda to weaken country-specific human rights scrutiny?  

These countries jointly resist country-specific human rights monitoring both by advancing the positions above in HRC debates and discussions as well as voting against country-specific scrutiny. It is not merely a rhetorical assault. These countries marshal votes to determine outcomes on key initiatives.  

For example, in 2022, a number of LMG countries were among those that voted against a resolution that would have continued the mandate of the U.N.’s Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen that allowed the group to investigate the numerous reports of human rights violations in the midst of the conflict there. These countries instead passed a toothless resolution that focused on technical assistance capacity building.  

Several LMG countries were also among those that voted to shield China from being held accountable for its treatment of ethnic Uyghurs, who have been subjected to forced labor, arbitrary detention, and extensive monitoring and invasions of privacy.

Explain how authoritarian propaganda engenders a counter-narrative of the global human rights system.

Some of the most damaging authoritarian counter-narratives are that human rights scrutiny is hypocritical, politically motivated, and driven by arrogant, imperialist tendencies from Western countries. The LMG has used this refrain to drive a wedge between developing countries and industrialized democracies, and it does seem to have some impact since not all LMG countries are autocracies. For example, South Africa and India are part of this group and some of these nations appear to align with the LMG out of a sense of developing world solidarity.

China used this argument to garner votes to defeat the October 2022 HRC resolution on Xinjiang. China insisted that “all country-specific resolutions of the Human Rights Council are aimed at developing countries. The U.S. and some other countries… are indulged in pointing fingers at others… The international community must not allow any attempt to politicize or instrumentalize human rights issues, with a view to prevent multilateral human rights bodies from serving the political goals of certain countries.”

Authoritarian countries will also use neutral or even positive concepts but apply them in damaging ways. For example, a group of 18 countries calling itself the “Group of Friends in the Defense of the Charter of the United Nations,” has emerged in the U.N. General Assembly.  The group includes countries such as Belarus, Cuba, and North Korea, and one of their key tenets appears to be insisting on an absolutist version of state sovereignty to back arguments about non-intervention in the internal affairs of states, even in cases of gross human rights violations.

How can liberal democratic governments counter autocratic efforts to undermine the international human rights system?

The first step is for democratic nations to renew their commitment to the international human rights regime and invest the resources, diplomatic attention, and energy needed to safeguard it. These nations tend to treat multilateral human rights diplomacy as a luxury, not a necessity, while autocratic nations view undermining the international human rights regime as linked to their survival.  

Second, these nations, especially the U.S., need to realize that they are not going to fix the U.N. Human Rights Council by boycotting it. International regimes are dynamic and evolve based on state participation. In my book on China and the international human rights regime, I traced ways China has used its involvement in the international human rights system to shape and alter it. Nations with a strong commitment to democratic ideals need to adopt a similar tactic.