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Why Russia but not China faces human rights action

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This week, the UN Human Rights Council did something unprecedented. It focussed its attention on two permanent members of the UN Security Council: China and Russia.

The Human Rights Council is the world’s top human rights body. Its mandate is to promote human rights everywhere, to condemn violations everywhere, without fear or favour.

The council has done some excellent work. Its commission of inquiry for Syria has produced painstaking, forensic reports several times a year since that long conflict began in 2011. The fact-finding mission for Myanmar reported in graphic detail the suffering of the Rohingya community, and made it clear that Myanmar’s ruling junta were responsible.

Of course, no country, big or small, likes sitting on the council’s naughty step, and they all try to avoid it. But some succeed, and others do not. This week, China succeeded, to the bitter disappointment of human rights groups.

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In August, minutes before she left office, the outgoing UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet finally published her report on violations against Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province. As many rights activists had predicted, it contained evidence of widespread abuse, from arbitrary detention, to forced labour, to torture. Abuse which could amount, Ms Bachelet said, to crimes against humanity.

The logical next step after a report like that is a debate at the Human Rights Council, the appointment of a special expert to monitor the country concerned, or even a full-blown commission of inquiry. Western diplomats, led by the US and the UK, took a minimalist approach and asked only for a debate, and they lost.

China lobbied hard, especially among African countries which have benefitted from Beijing’s investment. Its ambassador suggested most of the world was weary of the west’s “political manipulation”. It’s us today, he told developing nations, it will be you tomorrow. When the votes were counted, just 17 member states supported a debate, 19 rejected it, and 11 abstained. Just one African country – Somalia – said yes. Most, from Mauritania, to Senegal, to Ivory Coast and Cameroon, backed China.

The vote reflects China’s position as a global superpower, able to influence smaller UN member states who may rely on it for economic support. But it also, as the next vote about Russia showed, reveals deep divisions about what human rights are, and who should be defending them.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s diplomats, who once strode purposefully from meeting to meeting at the United Nations in Geneva, have been increasingly isolated. Russia was ousted from its seat on the Human Rights Council last March, and can now only participate as an observer. When this week’s resolution to appoint a UN special rapporteur to monitor human rights in Russia came up for discussion, Western diplomats and rights activists were confident it would be approved.

The crackdown on dissent in Russia has become ever more brutal, with mass arrests, beatings and the suppression of independent media. Russian human rights groups bravely continuing their work were looking to the UN for support.

Like the resolution on China, the proposal on Russia went to a vote, and this time it was passed. “Happy 70th birthday, Mr Putin,” tweeted one jubilant Western diplomat. But examine the votes, and there really is not much for the West to celebrate. Just 17 council members voted in favour, six said no, and a staggering 24 abstained.

Again and again countries who abstained – India, Pakistan, Mexico, Armenia, Honduras – argued that finger pointing was not constructive. Dialogue please, they said, not blame. Sovereign countries need to deal with these issues themselves, it was suggested, without unwanted interference from do-gooders in the West.

These arguments have been taking place at the UN Human Rights Council for years, but never have they been so stark. Human rights, or so the declaration of 1948 says, are supposed to be universal. The Human Rights Council is mandated to uphold, promote and defend them, and to call out violations. The member states on the council are supposed to work together, the common aim of universal human rights for all is supposed to take precedence over national interests, and geopolitical differences.

Increasingly, that idea, created by those who had endured the horrors of World War Two, including Russia and China, looks like a fantasy. Powerful countries can use their power to avoid scrutiny, less powerful ones will join together to argue that they don’t need any outside interference. The losers, rights groups say, will be not only the thousands of people who suffer repression and abuse, but all of us.

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