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UN Human Rights Chief Hands China a PR Victory

Xi Jinping. Image Credit: Creative Commons
Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Whether due to incompetence or lack of resolve, the United Nations’ human rights system has aided China and undermined its mission.

Previewing her recent trip to Beijing, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet the visit would allow her to talk frankly with Chinese leaders about their human rights practices and the need to fulfill their “obligations under international human rights law.” Instead, the visit was a public relations victory for China, allowing Beijing to use the U.N. to positively shape its image and push back against criticism of its human rights practices.

China’s systematic violations of human rights are well known. From political repression in Hong Kong, to religious persecution in Tibet, to genocide in Xinjiang, there are few places where human rights are under such assault. Yet China continues its longstanding practice of aggressively denying these well-documented abuses. It also continues to hinder U.N. efforts to highlight and criticize its record.

After Bachelet expressed concern about China’s treatment of its Uyghur population in 2018, it took years for China and the Office of the High Commissioner to agree on the parameters of a visit. In a worrying sign of obsequiousness to China, while these discussions proceeded, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner delayed releasing a report on Chinese human rights abuses in Xinxiang despite numerous calls for its publication.

As expected, Beijing insisted on conditions for Bachelet’s visit that undermined its purpose, including prohibiting confidential meetings with Uyghur families and prohibiting visits to detention facilities. Bachelet agreed to these restrictions despite strong warnings from human rights experts that the trip would be manipulated by Beijing to its advantage and U.S. concerns that the “conditions Beijing authorities imposed on the visit did not enable a complete and independent assessment of the human rights environment.”

As predicted, China seized the moment.

China trumpeted positive comments Bachelet made during the visit. These included her claim that China “has a crucial role to play within multilateral institutions” and her praise for Beijing’s leadership on poverty alleviation, the U.N.’s sustainable development goals, and its legislation protecting women’s rights.

The Chinese propaganda was so blatant that Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a sharp rebuke of Beijing’s “manipulation.” He reiterated U.S. recognition of China’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity committed by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang.

Reaction from human rights groups was also scathing, accusing Bachelet of making nice with China and ducking calls for an investigation into China’s violations.

Buffeted by criticism, Bachelet felt the need to defend the trip. But even after leaving China, she carefully couched her words so as not to offend her Chinese hosts. She insisted that the trip was not an “investigation” into China’s detention of over a million Uyghurs in concentration camps. Instead, Bachelet described the meeting as a discussion of “concerns…that could be very useful in the future to continue cooperating and collaborating.”

Unfortunately, this is nothing new at the U.N. Beijing’s attempts to expand its global influence through international institutions is well-known. For example, China scored a public relations victory when the World Health organization endorsed Beijing’s narrative over the origins of COVID-19 last year. And China has repeatedly blocked Taiwan’s bid for observer status in U.N. organizations, including the WHO.

China’s manipulation is especially apparent when a Chinese national leads a U.N. organization. For example, despite being an international air traffic hub, Taiwan’s participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization was constrained under Secretary General Fang Liu. As Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union, Houlin Zhao championed Beijing’s priorities.  The United Nations Industrial Development Organization likewise praised China’s Belt and Road Initiative under Director General  Li Yong. And today, the Food and Agriculture Organization is actively promoting China’s influence in Asia and Africa under Director-General Qu Dongyu.

China’s rising influence in the U.N. has alarmed U.S. policymakers and spurred legislation. But successfully addressing it requires vision and determination from the Administration. Will the Biden administration answer the call? On the U.N. human rights front, there is reason for doubt.

Nearly 18 months after taking office, the Biden administration does not have a plan for reforming the Human Rights Council, let alone countering China’s influence within it. Secretary Blinken’s speech on the administration’s policy toward China last week barely mentioned the Human Rights Council, and he vowed that the U.S. would continue to raise human rights issues issues and call for change, but offered no specifics on what the United States will do to hold China accountable.

Bachelet’s apparent indifference to Xi Jinping’s genocide should be a wakeup call. As a first step, the U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Michéle Taylor, should proffer a resolution demanding the immediate release of the long-delayed report on Xinxiang by the Office of the High Commissioner and calling for a Commission of Inquiry into the genocide. Securing enough votes in the Council will be challenging, but the very demand for accountability by Council member states is a first step to denting China’s seeming impenetrability.

Future steps should include suspending China from the Human Rights Council and reforming the Council to improve the membership and make the body worthy of its mandate. In addition, the United States should announce its opposition to Bachelet serving a second term, as it did in 2018 when U.N. Secretary-General was first considering her as High Commissioner. A key qualification for the post is the ability to withstand intimidation and manipulation by China and other powerful member states – a bar that Bachelet has repeatedly failed to clear.

Speeches and tweets alone will not free over a million Uyghurs from concentration camps. It’s time for the Biden administration to make good on its pledge to demonstrate U.S. leadership and take meaningful action.

Morgan Lorraine Viña is vice president of government affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Brett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.

Morgan Lorraine Viña is vice president of government affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Brett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.