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Failed UN mission to China reveals faulty human rights assumptions

By Aaron Rhodes

Opinion Contributor



Deng Hua/Xinhua via AP

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, meets with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in Guangzhou, southern China, on May 23, 2022.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet’s mission to China ended as most feared it would: with failure to investigate Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang and global media flooded with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda about how the UN respects the country’s human rights practices. What lessons should governments that value fundamental liberties, and the civil society human rights community, take from this incident?

Bachelet has been subjected to criticism uncommon for a top UN human rights official, from human rights groups and from the U.S. government. She deserves it, for willfully walking into a public relations fiasco that has been years in the making. State Department spokesman Ned Price said on May 24 that “it was a mistake to agree to a visit under … circumstances where the high commissioner will not be granted the type of unhindered access — free and full access — that would be required to do a complete assessment, and to come back with a full picture of the atrocities, the crimes against humanity, and the genocide ongoing in Xinjiang.”

In China, Bachelet spoke almost as if she herself had been brainwashed in an indoctrination camp, all but endorsing China’s rationalizations for widespread murder, gang rape, torture and other human rights crimes that have been documented in Xinjiang’s mass detention centers. She called the camps “vocational educational training centers,” the term used by the CCP in its defiant pushbacks against international, fact-based criticism. She also discussed the camps as “counterterrorism” facilities, as the CCP does. And, like the CCP narrative, she spoke of China’s “tremendous achievements” in advancing human rights, speaking about a society where almost no fundamental political and civil rights are respected — where huge numbers of people are executed each year after unfair trials; where citizens’ behavior is electronically monitored and disciplined; where dissidents are murdered to harvest their organs for sale.

Yet Bachelet’s performance is, ultimately, symptomatic of something greater than the actions of a top international bureaucrat seeking expedient accommodation with a bad and powerful actor. We must examine closely the box that she found herself in. The UN walked its mandate back from an investigation to an anodyne exchange of views, rather than taking a principled position and canceling the exercise. They did that, it must be assumed, under pressure from China.

China’s vice foreign minister, Ma Zhaoxu, shared the CCP’s spin on the visit, concluding that it “enhanced understanding on China’s path on human rights development”; that it “set forth China’s proposition for global human rights governance” as one “respecting different countries’ paths”; strengthened China’s cooperation with the UN High Commissioner’s Office; and “provided an opportunity to observe and experience first-hand a real Xinjiang,” through discussions with officials who clarified that “Xinjiang is not at all a human rights issue, but a major issue concerning upholding national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.”

China needed this visit as a show of UN support and, more deviously, as demonstration of China’s domination of the UN and the prevailing concept of human rights embraced by the UN.

More broadly, the mission was essential to sustain the illusion that the success of the UN’s human rights program is established by the degree to which it incorporates the states that most challenge the principles it seeks to uphold. After the last round of elections, well over half of the members of the Human Right Council — the world’s highest human rights body — are dictatorships and human rights abusers. As members of the council, these regimes engage in “dialogue” about human rights principles and by their participation, according to the inclusivist foundational model provided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, repressive political cultures will be transformed.

Today there is ample evidence that this model of human rights transformation through inclusion and bureaucratic cooperation is not working, and indeed, often harms the campaign for human rights. Numerous UN human rights offices around the world help defend victims and civil society, and the independent voices of civil society can be heard in the Human Rights Council, despite increasingly strong efforts to silence them. But Bachelet’s abortive mission shows that China and other authoritarian states are turning the council and other UN human rights institutions into propaganda tools, through financing and bureaucratic capture.

The underlying problem we must face is that, while attachment to the principle of the universality of human rights leads toward promoting inclusiveness and unity in international organizations, in reality, such organizations tend to corrupt human rights in principle and practice. The failure of Bachelet’s mission should help convince free nations to avoid the UN human rights swamp, and form coalitions that are able and willing to help civil society struggle for freedom wherever it is denied.

Aaron Rhodes is senior fellow in the Common Sense Society, and president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. He is the author of “The Debasement of Human Rights.” Follow him on Twitter @Rhodesaaron.


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