In Brief

Is China Undermining Human Rights at the United Nations?

Under President Xi Jinping, China is pressing the United Nations’ human rights body to favor national sovereignty and development over calling out domestic rights abuses.

Experts are warning that China is quietly working to weaken the United Nations’ commitment to human rights. If it succeeds, they say, the international human rights system could become even less capable of protecting victims and holding governments accountable.

What’s happening?

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China is one of forty-seven countries meeting in Geneva for the second of three UN Human Rights Council sessions this year. Created in its current form in 2006, the council is the United Nations’ only forum for human rights dialogue among governments. Reporting to the UN General Assembly, it launches fact-finding missions, establishes commissions to investigate specific situations, and issues resolutions that call on states to take action against rights violations, though its decisions, unlike the Security Council’s, are not legally binding. The Human Rights Council also gives individuals and organizations the opportunity to call attention to human rights issues.

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Experts are increasingly worried about Beijing’s approach to the council. During the current session, which runs until July 12, China has already tried to deflect criticism of its arbitrary detention of more than a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. The province’s vice governor, for example, defended the so-called reeducation camps in a speech to the council. Human rights advocates have criticized UN officials, including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, for their silence on Xinjiang, and for giving China a platform to spread what they call propaganda.

Delegates from Beijing also disrupted a discussion on Hong Kong during this month’s session, twice interrupting pro-democracy activist and singer Denise Ho.

What are China’s goals?

Before President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, China tried to minimize scrutiny of its human rights record. But now, experts say, China is working to undermine the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms more broadly.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping stands behind a wooden podium with the United Nations logo in gold. A Chinese flag is behind him.
Chinese President Xi Jinping gives a speech at the UN headquarters in January 2017. Denis Balibouse/Reuters

It has done so, argues the Brookings Institution’s Ted Piccone, by downplaying individual rights and emphasizing state-led development, national sovereignty, and nonintervention at the council. China’s first-ever resolution, in 2017, for example, highlighted development while neglecting individual rights.

China has also pressured other members, especially those economically dependent on its Belt and Road Initiative. During its universal periodic review—a process in which the Human Rights Council examines countries’ human rights records every five years—last year, China warned countries to submit positive reviews and threatened consequences for any that criticized Beijing, according to Human Rights Watch.

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Additionally, the watchdog says, China has blocked critical nongovernmental organizations and activists from attending UN forums while letting representatives of government-sponsored groups participate in them and speak widely.

What’s at stake?

The Human Rights Council, like its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, has long been criticized for including countries with dire records on human rights as members. The United States joined it in 2009, and in 2018 the Trump administration withdrew from it.

China has unparalleled power—money, alliances, and accompanying influence—to undercut international human rights institutions.
Yu-Jie Chen, New York University School of Law

But experts fear that China’s actions in the council could result in an even weaker human rights system—one that prioritizes the interests of states above those of individuals. Victims of abusive governments from Myanmar to Syria could end up with even less hope for accountability, writes analyst Sophie Richardson.

Beijing has been making advances. “China has unparalleled power—money, alliances, and accompanying influence—to undercut international human rights institutions,” says Yu-Jie Chen, an expert at New York University. “It’s also aware it has this power, which is why we have seen it become much more aggressive.”

China already regularly wins the support of like-minded members of the council, including Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Brookings’ Piccone predicts that the list will grow as Beijing invests in—and pressures—more vulnerable countries that rely on its economic support. And with the United States gone, there are fewer voices to push back.

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