Amid intense jockeying between Washington and Beijing, the United Nations Human Rights Council remains one of the few institutions where the two giants are forced to listen to each other, says its president, Nazhat Shameem Khan.
The United States was voted back onto the 47-seat council last month after then-president Donald Trump pulled it out in 2018, citing institutional bias, undue influence of authoritarian member states and systemic condemnation of Israel. President Joe Biden’s administration argues it is better to be in the room, to actively counter China, Russia and others with questionable rights records.
“I have the greatest hopes for the Human Rights Council,” Khan, who has been Fiji’s ambassador in Geneva since 2014, said in an interview. “We’ve always had members of the council at loggerheads with very different views.
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“There is always greater understanding when people are forced to hear other people’s views.”
The council, formed in 2006, is the only intergovernmental global body promoting and attempting to safeguard human rights worldwide. Its functions include passing resolutions and joint statements on human rights violators and thematic concerns, including directives overseen by Khan this year on Afghanistan, Myanmar, the environment and climate change.
While it lacks enforcement power – since 2017, for instance, China has resisted as biased its calls for a delegation to investigate the treatment of Uygurs in Xinjiang – its ability to spotlight, arm twist and embarrass nations puts them under pressure to reform.
The Biden administration has framed competition with China as a choice between rule-of-law-based liberal values and strong-armed government. Next month, Washington will host a “Summit for Democracy” aimed at driving home these differences, with its active role on the council seen as part of this global campaign.
Civic groups and activists have called the council’s latest session the most acrimonious in recent history, as the US – in an observer role – and China increasingly engaged in zero-sum, tit-for-tat tactics and one-upmanship.
“It’s been an exceptionally bad year for an increasingly not just politicised but polarised council,” said Sarah Brooks, programme director at International Service for Human Rights, who also blames divisive debates over colonialism and systemic racism.
Underscoring the divide, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, told the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday that there were some areas of limited cooperation with Beijing, including climate change.
“But when it comes to the values of the multilateral system, the role they’re playing is not a positive role. And we will push back against that,” she said. “We do have a respectful relationship with each other, but we know where the red lines are. I‘m not afraid to make sure that I raised my concerns with them and I do it publicly.”
Thomas-Greenfield added that China’s push for state sovereignty over the sovereignty of human rights for people within those states was a fundamental difference in outlook. “We fight against that,” she said, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations. “We call them out when they make human rights violations against their own people. We call them out when their malign efforts are bringing a message to countries where we see different values.”
But Khan, a career diplomat, pushed back on the idea that the current environment in the council was unworkable or extreme. “I didn’t see it as being more or less acrimonious. I saw that the negotiations were very difficult on some very difficult issues, but they were expected,” she said. “But I do think that the debate has become much more robust, more informed.”
Although the presidency holds little direct authority, it has a significant influence over priorities, the agenda and investigations into human rights abuses.
Khan sees its role as a “safe space” for discussion. Unlike the Security Council, no council member has a veto, allowing the institution to take tougher stands and call out rights violators by name, she said.
“Of course, countries will lobby and they will try very hard to use bilateral relationships to try and stop a particular result,” she said. “But at the end of the day, if you think of some very difficult decisions that have been made in the council, despite a very strong and very divisive range of views, it’s really quite a miracle.”
Critics say civic groups play an instrumental part in pressuring council members to take controversial positions. Recently, access to UN meetings has been increasingly hampered by Chinese vetting of witnesses and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), cost-cutting measures and overly cautious Covid-19 protocols, they add.
Khan countered that, if anything, the pandemic has expanded outside access to the council, allowing smaller civic groups and countries to participate without the expense of travelling to Geneva.
Marc Limon, executive director of the Geneva-based think tank Universal Rights Group, said the council offered better access than elsewhere in the UN. “But I don’t think NGO access improved in a qualitative sense,” he said. “It has been very difficult for us to get in, to lobby, to meet diplomats, to participate in negotiations.”
Khan said she agreed with critics who argue that elections for council membership and the presidency are too often mere formalities, determined in advance by cosy regional groups based on unspoken rules that undercut transparency.
Her own candidacy in late 2020 looked like an uncontested shoo-in. Shortly before the election, however, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia mounted a proxy campaign, throwing their weight behind a candidate from Bahrain in hopes, analysts said, of a more compliant candidate.
Despite Fiji’s earlier support for investigations into alleged abuses in Venezuela, the Philippines, Belarus, Syria and Yemen – close allies of the authoritarian states – Khan won decisively, securing the backing of 29 seats on the 47-member council compared with 14 for Bahrain and four for Uzbekistan.
Khan played down charges by some critics that China has become adept at introducing seemingly innocuous language into UN human rights documents that, over time, allow it to dilute the intent behind traditional human rights measures.
As highlighted by Thomas-Greenfield, Beijing has long argued that human rights, as described by the West, are not universal and that much more weight should be given to such rights as freedom from poverty, crime and social unrest overseen by strong governments.
But the US ambassador added that the US needed to pay the dues it owes if it wanted to more effectively counter China’s influence at the UN. The US Congress has dragged its heels on paying, driven by many Republicans critical of multilateralism, with arrears now over US$1 billion.
“The Chinese are paying their dues,” she said. “The more they pay, the louder their voice can be, the stronger their voice is. So we need to maintain a strong voice so that we can work against some of their malign efforts.”
There is no country in the world with a perfect human rights record, Khan said, adding that those with opposing views were free to introduce resolutions, field strong candidates and otherwise effect change through institution machinery.
China has come under growing scrutiny over its detention of Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang, crackdowns in Hong Kong and Tibet and increasingly provocative actions in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, who was Chile’s first female president and who has tried to visit Xinjiang, has pledged to make her assessment public by year’s end, even without on-the-ground access.
Khan’s one-year term finishes at the end of the year and, in line with UN tradition, it is Latin America’s turn next, with Argentina’s ambassador to Geneva Federico Villegas expected to secure the presidency. “It is very, very likely,” said one former diplomat. “In fact, I’d say 100 per cent.”
Khan’s advice to her successor: “that you will not allow the council to become a playing ground for political agenda and for insults, especially personal insults.”
Analysts give Khan – a Cambridge-educated lawyer and Fiji’s first female High Court judge – good marks.
As the council’s second consecutive woman president, she has focused on access to vaccines and strengthening human rights related to gender issues and climate change, including the plight of small island nations like Fiji.
“Having her in the presidency has been really important to have a firm hand, grounded in principle,” said Brooks. “Certainly compared to some past presidents coming from the Asian region, that’s not always the case.”
The council faces a five-year review leading up to 2025 amid critics’ concerns that authoritarian states might try to weaken the structure, allowing individual members to kill resolutions more easily and reducing the focus on national human rights violations. Any such reforms will be up to the General Assembly, which oversees the council, Khan said.
“Countries are going to have to convince the General Assembly it’s time to change the plumbing,” she said. “It is a political process. But I honestly do not believe the council embraces any one view or even allows one voice from anywhere to overtake the discussion.”
“Multilateralism,” she added, “really works.”
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