Trump Administration’s Decision to Quit UNHRC: An Opportunity for China?

Ms. Fatima German, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

On 18 June 2018, the United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the administration’s decision to pull out from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In the press briefing, Haley gave two main reasons for the pullout: first, the poor framework of the Council and its inefficiency in meeting its objectives. Second, she cited the Council’s bias against Israel and attempts to isolate it via agenda item 7. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who joined Haley during the withdrawal announcement took issue with the Council’s image – that it has come across as a poor defender of human rights.

The United States questioned the UN Human Rights Council’s competence by approving countries like China, Venezuela, Iran, and the Republic of Congo for membership, who are believed to be the worst human rights violators. She further alleged that countries like Russia, China, Cuba, and Egypt came out as ‘woodwork to oppose the council reform’.

Earlier, on 6 June 2017, Haley in her speech in Geneva suggested two required reforms to the Council. First, she suggested a change in its election procedure in order to make it more competitive and transparent. Second, she called for the elimination of agenda item 7. In her view, singling out of a country such as Israel with a good human rights record is a mockery of the Council. She mentioned that many other Council member countries agreed with the United States regarding the poor framework and need for reform; however, it was all behind closed doors.

Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch John Sifton criticized Nikki Haley for the decision to pull out from the council and suggested that she ‘could have worked with missions in Geneva on agenda consolidations and member pledges, as we and others repeatedly advised’. He expressed concern about how such a decision would work in the interest of countries like Russia and China. Radio Free Asia also mentioned in its report that this decision has let down the Chinese rights activists and dissidents who on had their hopes pinned on the United States. Human Rights Watch in a statement said ‘The United States withdrawal risks emboldening countries like China, and other actors that regularly seek to undermine UN human rights mechanisms’.

The notion that China will benefit from the absence of the United States in the Council is largely driven by the understanding that the US withdrawal creates a void that is opportune for China. As the US moves towards isolation by pulling out of multilateral forums, it creates space for China to gradually increase its presence. For example, Chinese personnel are filling senior posts in the World Bank, Interpol, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, UNESCO, and so on. Also, China is deploying a majority of troops to UN peacekeeping missions. In October 2017 the president of the Better World Campaign, a UN advocacy group, Peter Yeo noted that China is the second biggest funder of the UN. In the same year Human Rights Watch’s UN director, Louis Charbonneau mentioned that ‘With China’s international influence growing and growing, there is a worry that what it’s doing could undermine the UN Human Rights system overall’.

Two days after the American withdrawal from UNHRC, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang expressed regret regarding the United States decision to quit. However, as discussed earlier, it is widely perceived that China will benefit the most from it. Amnesty International researcher in Hong Kong, William Nee, pointed out that without the United States in the Council it will become easier for China to promote its views, as ‘The United States had been one of the few countries willing to stand up to China’.

China’s influence in the Council is increasing gradually and in 2017 China successfully passed a resolution which prioritized development over human rights. This resolution basically considers the right to economic development at par with the right to freedom of speech. In March 2018, China proposed a resolution suggesting ‘mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights’. The US was the only country to cast a negative vote with Britain, Australia, Japan, and Switzerland abstaining. The US spokesperson Jason Mack reasoned that ‘the “feel good” language about “mutually beneficial” cooperation is intended to benefit autocratic states at the expense of people whose human rights and fundamental freedoms we are all obligated, as states, to respect’. The US also argued that this resolution glorifies Xi Jinping and is an attempt to forward his thoughts in the international human rights glossary.

China has often criticised the United States for imposing their notion of human rights and experts have observed that now China is aiming to ‘smash the West’s monopoly on human rights’ and promote human rights with Chinese characteristics. Amidst this, the decision of US to pull out from the Council is no less than an opportunity for China. Frances Eve, the researcher at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, noted that ‘withdrawing will not make the UNHRC disappear, rather provides open space for China to dominate the council unchallenged’.

Nevertheless, Israeli Prime Minister’s office released a statement appreciating the Trump administration for voicing against the hypocrisy of the Council, ‘Instead of dealing with the regimes that systematically violate human rights, the UNHRC obsessively focuses on Israel, the genuine democracy in the Middle East’. While the debate on US withdrawal from the Council continues, Ambassador Haley has assured that the US would continue to work on human rights from outside the Council and rejoin it when desired reforms are undertaken. Until then, how human rights with Chinese characteristics play out at the Council would be an important issue to watch out for.