In their own way, Russia and China are threatening the world’s system for defending human rights.
By Kenneth Roth, a former executive director of Human Rights Watch.
OCTOBER 27, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the start of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, on May 15, 2017. KENZABURO FUKUHARA-POOL/GETTY IMAGES
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have become stark illustrations of the dangers of autocratic rule. By surrounding themselves with sycophants, suppressing dissent, and either invading or threatening neighboring countries, these dictatorial leaders have become case studies in the perils of unchecked power. Less appreciated is that Putin and Xi, each in his own way, also pose serious threats to the global human rights system. Each sees undermining that system’s ability to condemn their crackdowns at home as essential to maintaining their legitimacy.
Each autocrat also responds to public dissatisfaction—with Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine or with Xi’s endless zero-COVID lockdowns—by intensifying repression. Putin is jailing participants in protests that have broken out in dozens of cities across the country. Xi has silenced public critics throughout the country, while detaining more than a million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang—a region in northwest China—to force them to abandon their religion, language, and culture.
Facing growing international condemnation, both Putin and Xi have mounted defenses. Their approaches differ, but each threatens the global human rights system through a combination of alternative visions and fundamental attacks.
Of the two, Xi’s strategy to fend off criticism of his repression has proved harder to defeat so far, but it is showing signs of vulnerability. His approach consists of two parts: one directed at the definition of human rights, the other at the means of enforcement.
Xi would reduce a government’s human rights obligations to its ability to improve living standards; expand the economy; and promote vague, easily manipulated concepts such as “happiness.” This view, where the internationally endorsed concept of individual rights has no place at all, is a radical proposition. It transcends traditional debates among proponents of civil and political rights on the one hand and advocates of economic, social, and cultural rights on the other.
It is hardly surprising that Xi doesn’t want questions asked about political and civil rights. Unfettered debate, let alone free and fair elections, would jeopardize the Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorship. Nor does he want discussion of the increasingly intrusive surveillance state that he is constructing.
Beijing suggests that Chinese citizens have accepted the party’s dictatorship as the price of stability and economic growth, but that choice was never presented to the people—it was simply dictated. Hong Kong was the one part of China under Beijing’s control where freedom of expression existed, and its citizens made clear through massive street protests that they had no interest in that dictatorship. Xi then ordered those freedoms crushed and dissenters imprisoned.
Xi also rejects scrutiny of his economic and social rights policies. Although China has acceded to the treaty upholding those rights—the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—the last thing Beijing wants asked is whether it is allocating available resources to meet the basic needs of all segments of society, as the treaty requires. That would invite awkward questions about the fate of Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, and even Han Chinese in poor rural areas.
Instead, by reducing human rights to economic growth, Xi conveniently avoids the need to discuss whether economic resources are being distributed fairly or whether citizens have any say in the policies behind that distribution. That narrowing of the conversation eviscerates what human rights are all about.
Xi also challenges the way that human rights are enforced. Because of the absence of judicial remedies for China’s human rights violations and the lack of political rights in China, international pressure is the only available tool. But Beijing regularly tries to undermine that pressure.
At the United Nations Human Rights Council, not only does China routinely vote against any effort to monitor or condemn virtually any government’s abuse, but it also opposes the very concept of pressure. In Beijing’s view, the council should be reduced to a forum for polite, general conversation among governments about human rights with due deference to each sovereign nation’s interpretation of rights and selection of its own human rights path. In other words, human rights are whatever a government wants them to be, and pressure to uphold any more rigorous standard is objectionable.
Despite its efforts, Beijing has not succeeded in undermining most of the council’s work, which continues to order investigations and condemn many countries, including Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela, and Ethiopia.
By using its economic clout, the Chinese government has so far been successful in fending off any investigation or condemnation of its own repression. Earlier this month, Beijing avoided discussion of its possible crimes against humanity targeting Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang by a close 19-17 vote, with 11 abstentions.
Yet the closeness of the vote must have Beijing worried. One country that abstained—Ukraine—belatedly expressed its support for the initiative. Had it done so earlier, the vote would have been 19 to 18.
Despite its huge Muslim population, Indonesia voted against a debate, as did Qatar, Namibia, and Senegal. Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Malaysia—another important majority-Muslim country—abstained. All these votes could conceivably shift in the future. No state credited Beijing’s absurd cover story that the estimated million-plus Muslims in Xinjiang who have been arbitrarily interned—and sometimes tortured—are receiving only “vocational training.”
Moreover, in part due to pressure from Beijing, there was no advocacy on the vote by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Although outgoing commissioner Michelle Bachelet published a damning report on Xinjiang, she released it only 13 minutes before her term ended—a publish-and-run strategy that left no room for follow-up. Her successor, Volker Türk, was named to the post on Sept. 8 but assumed his office on Oct. 17. By that time, the council had already voted on the China resolution. Türk was a close aide of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who appointed him, and Guterres has yet to publicly criticize Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang.
Fortunately, the number of governments willing to condemn Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang has been growing. Over the last three years, governments concerned with Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang have issued periodic joint statements on the issue. The number of governments willing to sign these statements has gradually increased from 23 in October 2019 to 47 in June 2022. These numbers are important, not least because they provide safety in numbers from Beijing’s economic retaliation. Even China cannot sanction such a large array of countries.
Despite Beijing’s recent narrow victory at the U.N. Human Rights Council, China’s anti-rights position has come to look more assailable. In October 2020, it received the fewest number of votes of any successful candidate to the council from the Asia-Pacific region. (Only Saudi Arabia received fewer votes, and its candidacy was rejected.) Four years earlier—the previous time it ran—China received the most votes from the Asia-Pacific region. In January 2021, Beijing’s preferred candidate for president of the council, rights-unfriendly Bahrain, lost overwhelmingly to rights-friendly Fiji.
The same year, in an obvious attempt to turn the tables on its critics, China put forward a resolution on colonialism. But the ploy backfired when the council adopted two British amendments on persecution and forced assimilation—obvious references to Beijing’s repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. In addition, fearing that it lacked the votes to prevail, China withdrew a resolution at the council on “realizing a better life for everyone”—another effort to evade the concrete requirements of international human rights law.
In short, there is nothing inevitable about the success of the Chinese government’s assault on the global human rights system. Despite its economic clout and its willingness to blackmail governments daring to spotlight its repression, Beijing is vulnerable to international censure.
Even though condemnation by international bodies carries no concrete consequence, we should not minimize its significance. As an unelected leader—and because he is trying to export a vision of a new global order—Xi values the legitimacy conferred by international acceptance. But that also sharpens the potential sting of international rebuke. That is why Beijing devotes so much attention to avoiding a critical vote by the Human Rights Council and to undermining its work.
Putin has a harder time presenting a positive vision for his rule in U.N. circles and elsewhere outside Russia. Few people around the world wake up in the morning wishing they could live under a Russian kleptocratic autocracy. Putin trumpets supposedly traditional values by emphasizing family and religion, glorifying the nation, and attacking the cosmopolitanism and tolerance of Western elites. His nostalgic veneration of the supposed halcyon days of Russia’s glorious past resonates with autocrats and their ilk, from former U.S. President Donald Trump to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who find Putin’s narratives useful for attacking the status quo without detailing an alternative concrete political program. But what Putin stands for is unconvincing for people who value human rights and personal freedoms. His is not a perspective that carries much weight in international discussions on the defense of human rights.
That is why Putin’s strategy is mainly negative. His social media trolls promote divisiveness in the West. And as RT (formerly known as Russia Today) illustrates, the Kremlin devotes enormous effort to highlighting anything that might make life in the West look bad. Eliding over the difference between, say, targeting civilians in Ukraine and police brutality in the West, the Kremlin’s point is to suggest that while the Russian government has its faults, so does everyone else. Kremlin diplomats at the U.N. routinely spotlight the failings of others to divert attention from their government’s own shortcomings.
Putin also attacks facts. This goes far beyond denying them—many governments do that. The Kremlin floods the information space with endless false claims, no matter how outlandish. According to Russian state media, documented Russian war crimes in Bucha, Ukraine, were supposedly carried out by Ukrainian forces against their own people. The Kremlin would have us believe that there are no facts, just contestable opinions.
This information war undermines the idea that human rights violations can be discovered, documented, and condemned—which requires facts. But if there are no facts and everyone is bad, as the Kremlin’s narrative implies, there should be no reason to bother with assessments under international human rights standards, let alone to direct special criticism at the Kremlin. Instead, we should just throw up our hands at the entire effort to uphold human rights.
The ploy may not be terribly persuasive to an objective observer, but it helps provide a rationale for pro-Kremlin partisans to maintain their loyalty. It is particularly useful for rallying votes in U.N. forums, where many governments benefit from Russian arms or military support, remember past Soviet support for their anticolonial fights, or embrace the Kremlin’s view that the defense of human rights is Western imperial imposition.
In Ukraine, however, Putin’s cynical strategy has run aground on public horror at Russian atrocities. Overwhelming majorities in the U.N. General Assembly condemned both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its later annexation of four Ukrainian regions. The General Assembly also suspended Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. The council, in turn, has established monitoring mechanisms not only for war crimes in Ukraine but also for domestic repression in Russia. The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation in Ukraine and is expected to charge the Russian leadership for directing or overseeing war crimes there. But these steps in resisting Putin’s cynical strategy should not lead to complacency in the face of his continuing efforts to undermine both the facts and the standards that are central to the global human rights system.
Each in their own way, Moscow and Beijing pose a fundamental threat to the global human rights system. But the system retains the potential to impose powerful pressure to curb the worsening repression that has characterized Putin’s and Xi’s rule—something all governments that purport to defend human rights would do well to heed.