Was the UN Human Rights Council Wrong to Back China’s “Shared Future” Resolution?

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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.

It is especially because of cases like these, in which activists continue to be targeted for quite severe forms of repression, that human rights experts and others look at any Chinese initiative in this domain with skepticism. Six rapporteurs, for example, issued a joint statement on the same day that China’s resolution was adopted expressing their concern over reports of the deteriorating health of a Chinese lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, who was imprisoned in late 2016 on charges of “subverting state power,” based on his attempts to provide counsel to other human rights lawyers facing similar charges. More generally, China has resisted calls to ratify the ICCPR, which it signed in 1998, and has rejected dozens of the recommendations it received in its prior UPR rounds.

On the other hand, however, China’s resolution can hardly be interpreted as calling on other states to emulate its own human rights practices. With language emphasizing, e.g., that “all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person and that the human person is the central subject of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” there does not seem to be any risk that the resolution could be taken as an endorsement of severe violations like those committed against Cao Shunli or Jiang Tianyong. Could it, though, be taken as endorsing China’s position with respect to limiting civil society involvement in human rights monitoring? Probably no more than the highly similar statements that have been adopted in multiple previous resolutions, such as A/HRC/RES/25/3, calling for “enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights.” That 2014 resolution was promoted by China, Russia, and Iran, but adopted by consensus. It covers much of the same ground as the 2018 resolution, but contains more detailed instructions regarding the specific forms of “international cooperation” that are meant: E.g., the provision of special funds for developing countries to participate in UPR review, the strengthening of regional mechanisms for crisis management, and general promotion of inter-state dialogue. Though these initiatives are clearly not oriented towards individual rights protection, neither do they seem to renounce or threaten it in any way. Indeed, they might even have some effect on promoting poorer countries to engage with the UPR process.

The 2018 resolution is thus almost entirely a reaffirmation of the earlier 2014 resolution, but while the earlier was adopted by consensus, the latter is being decried in exaggerated terms as a “Trojan Horse” for the UN human rights machinery. The US was a member of the HRC at the time of both resolutions, but it has led opposition only to the more recent (weaker and briefer) statement. Why is this the case? The probable answer lies in the latter of the critiques noted above, which sees the resolution as a subtle attempt to use the UNHRC to endorse China’s state ideology, via the inclusion of a reference to “building a community of shared future for human beings.”

Coded Language?

The phrase “community of shared future for humanity” (人类命运共同体) was recently incorporated into the Chinese Communist Party’s charter in November 2017 and into the PRC state constitution in March 2018. It is very closely associated with the ideological platform of Party General Secretary and PRC President Xi Jinping. Indeed, it is one of the 14 points of “Xi Jinping Thought.” In terms of specific policies, it is most often discussed in relation to Xi’s massive overseas infrastructure investment program, the Belt and Road Initiative (aka “One Belt, One Road”), as well as forms of international cooperation such as the Paris Agreement. Though certainly having a prominent role in Party ideology, it has not been given any expansionist connotations, or indeed used to indicate anything else other than the Xi administration’s commitment to developing cooperative ties with other states and maintaining involvement in regional and international institutions. There does not seem to be any “hidden meaning” in the “community of shared future” phrase. Indeed the phrase actually appears to ultimately derive from a sociological term, Schicksalsgemeinschaft, that appears in the work of Max Weber and that has been referenced fairly frequently in policy and diplomacy debates in Germany as well as in Japan and other East Asian states.

It is doubtful whether the US and other countries would really have grounds to be fearful over a term with such an anodyne technocratic genealogy, even if it were, as the US diplomat Jason Mack claimed, a Chinese attempt to “glorify their head of state by inserting his thoughts into the international human rights lexicon.” In any case, previous resolutions adopted by the General Assembly, such as the November 2017 General Assembly resolution A/RES/72/250 on “further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space,” do already contain Xi’s exact phrase in their official Chinese versions (the UNHRC resolution, like two others adopted last year, actually contains only a near-approximation that sounds rather different in the Chinese version).

China’s continued exclusive focus on state-state rights and obligations, and especially its practices of deterring, intimidating, or punishing civil society members who try to participate in UNHRC and other rights monitoring processes, are serious grounds for concern. So are statements like that of the head of China’s UN mission to the UN, Yu Jianhua, rejecting the practice of “naming and shaming.” But advocating “mutual cooperation” among states poses no intrinsic threat to the role of the individual as the subject of international human rights law. Rather than seeing hidden threats in China’s dry diplomatic jargon, the US and others concerned over China’s international role should do more to directly promote its ratification of the ICCPR, adoption of UPR recommendations (several of which, such as abolition of the Reform Through Labor system and improving procedural protections against torture, it has actually proceeded to implement despite earlier officially “rejecting” them), and better treatment of its lawyers and activists.

The recent focus on “comparative international law” is an opportunity too for scholars and practitioners to reflect on the best way to pursue multilateral dialogues that result in meaningful convergence on individual rights protection. If the aim of Western states is to continue socializing China into key norms of the international community, this goal would probably be better served by more frequently, frankly, and publicly raising cases like that of Cao Shunli (though it is now too late to do so), Jiang Tianyong, Gao Zhisheng, et al.; by taking the lead in treaty ratification and compliance rather than (in the US case) setting an example for the opposite; or by making civil and political rights progress a prerequisite for economic, technological, and other forms of cooperation—rather than by issuing criticisms over those instances in which China actually does attempt modest engagement with the international human rights system.

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