On March 23rd, the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution (A/HRC/37/L.36) introduced by China, calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” among states to promote human rights, with “the aim of building a community of shared future for human beings.” The vote was contested, with 28 states voting in favor, 17 abstaining, and one, the United States, voting against the motion. There has also been considerable criticism by legal experts and political officials in the West, who have argued that China’s resolution is an attempt to indirectly excuse its own rights lapses or to dilute the idea of international monitoring.
The substantial opposition, or at least discomfort, with the resolution seems somewhat inconsistent with the general thrust of the text, which consists largely of affirmations of the importance of human rights and endorsements of existing UNHRC practices and procedures. However, two aspects of the document (aside from the dissonance between rhetoric and practice) have been identified as problematic by critics. The first is the apparent focus on “state to state” obligations rather than on individuals as the focus on international human rights law, and the associated invocations of “cooperation” and “multilateralism” as opposed to “unilateral” critique. The second, and as I will argue the less convincing of these criticisms, is that by giving international endorsement to China’s “community of shared future” concept, the UNHRC is being made a vehicle for ideological propaganda of the Xi Jinping administration.
Dividing Positions from Practice
There are reasons to take the first ground of critique quite seriously. There is no question that China has historically sought to shift focus from individuals as rights-bearers to the rights and obligations of states, as well as to avoid external criticism for its rights record. It has opted out of optional protocols that establish individual complaint mechanisms in international human rights treaties and has, for example, issued reservations to Article 20 of the Convention against Torture allowing confidential inquiries by the Committee of the CAT. In terms of its practice on the UNHCR and in other UN human rights contexts, it has by various means discouraged NGOs and individuals from engaging with reporting mechanisms, rising to the level of harassment or detention of civil society members seeking to do so. In one of the more infamous such cases, the activist Cao Shunli, who sought to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review in 2013, was apprehended by police at Beijing’s airport and then detained for several months—only to die while in custody, allegedly due to refusal of state security agents to provide medical care for several long-term illnesses. Read the rest of this entry…