Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of UPF Lund and The Perspective.

How the latest additions to the UN human rights council have confused and exasperated many.

On October 13, 2020, the UN General Assembly underwent their yearly secret-ballot election to vote in new member states for the UN human rights council. Fifteen countries were elected and they now hold seats for three years. Out of those elected, several have been labelled as frequent human rights abusers, such as China, Cuba, Pakistan and Russia. As the human rights council claims to be the, ‘highest inter-governmental body mandated to protect human rights worldwide’, the new additions have confused many and called into question the legitimacy of the council. Crucially, it appears to be a corrupt body that countries can seemingly “buy” membership to, regardless of their human rights record. This article will look into the additions of China, Russia and Cuba and present a Taiwanese viewpoint on these latest developments from Ambassador Yao of the Taipei Mission in Sweden.

The UN human rights council consists of 47 member states elected by the UN General Assembly. Founded in 2006, replacing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, it is responsible for ‘the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.’ It is easy to understand people’s confusion regarding the new entries of China, Russia and Cuba onto the human rights council.

UN Human Rights Council, 14th session (Photo: UN Geneva, flickr)

Since 2014, the Chinese government has been carrying out a genocidal policy against Uyghur Muslims. Political freedom has also been slowly corroding in Hong Kong, with a major move to condemn democracy with the recent introduction of the new National Security Bill. Russia has likewise been condemned for human rights abuses on many occasions. Their persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya and the recent poisoning of Alexei Navalny by a state-produced nerve agent both highlight a clear disdain for human rights. Cuba has a similarly questionable record; the detention of journalists and political opponents takes place regularly. Moreover, it disallows amnesty international and other human rights groups to carry out monitoring. 

Why then were these countries elected onto the UN human rights council? Rosa María Payá, a Cuban human rights activist, has stated that countries ‘conspire together to cover up the facts and empty the human rights council of content and effectiveness’ thus making the democratic election process of the council null-and-void. This belief was held by the United States in 2018 when they withdrew from the council. The Trump administration’s former ambassador to the UN decried the new additions as proving the council to be ‘a total farce not worthy of its name.’

This hostility is not unique to the United States; the NGO UN Watch stated the recent move to be the ‘equivalent of allowing convicted arsonists to join the fire brigade.’ The Perspective talked with Ambassador Yao of the Taipei Mission in Sweden and discussed how the UN as a political body has been undermined by these latest changes. Moreover, Ambassador Yao describes the complex situation relating to Taiwan’s non-involvement with the UN as a result of political relations with China.

For Taiwan, who is barred from joining the UN, how does the acceptance of China and Russia come across to your country? Knowing these countries have shocking human rights records, how does this feel as a representative of Taiwan trying to gain international standing?

Ambassador Yao: “It is a long and complicated history regarding how Taiwan (The official nomenclature is “The Republic of China”) withdrew from the UN. The point is: The Republic of China (Taiwan) was founded in 1911 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949. However, the CCP still claims that Taiwan is a breakaway province even though the PRC was founded 38 years later. More importantly, the Republic of China was one of the founding members of the UN and one of the five Permanent Security Council Members.

In the 70’s, Communist China started to leverage itself and play power games in between the US and the Soviet Union. It also sought to replace Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime in the UN. I am not going to talk about the long history with regard to how the Western world was defeated and the Republic of China (Taiwan) was forced to withdraw from the UN and all of UN’s affiliated bodies in 1971, but it is important to mention Resolution 2758:

Recognizing that the representatives of the Government of the People’s Republic of China are the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations and that the People’s Republic of China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. 

Decides to restore all its rights to the People’s Republic of China and to recognize the representatives of its Government as the only legitimate representatives of China to the United Nations, and to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.

Resolution 2758 actually only addressed the issue of the PRC representatives’ status at the UN without solving the issue of the representation of the 23 million people of Taiwan, and Taiwan has been excluded from participating in UN meetings, mechanisms, conventions and activities ever since. 

In 1993, the Taiwanese government launched its first UN campaign, calling upon nations worldwide to recognise the fundamental rights of the 23 million people of Taiwan. Nevertheless, as you are aware, China is a member of the Permanent Security Council and has the veto power. So is Russia. Therefore, to many nations, Taiwan’s return to the UN is a non-issue. Especially for countries in alliance with China and Russia, they don’t even want to talk about this issue.The UN, under the pressure of China, has even denied access to any UN facilities by Taiwanese passport holders and journalists. An international organization whose charter is based on the principle of universality and aimed at ‘solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedom for all without distinction’ became a tool manoeuvred by countries with, as you mentioned, “shocking human rights records”, and has continued to ignore the right of Taiwanese people.”

Ambassador Yao of The Taipei Mission in Sweden delivering a lecture to UPF Lund (Photo: UPF Lund)

Do you feel that the UN human rights council has lost credibility for admitting these countries? As its purpose is to address issues that don’t reach worldwide attention, how can it function effectively with countries that thrive on censorship and authoritarian control over their populations. 

Ambassador Yao: “As I mentioned in my presentation at Lund University, over the past ten years, China has managed to control the leadership of more than a quarter of the UN affiliated bodies. The US and some EU countries have raised their awareness about China’s ambitions to control the international organizations. 

China is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy toward global governance. It supports international institutions and agreements aligned with its goals and norms, such as the World Bank and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Yet, on issues in which Beijing diverges from the norms of the current system, such as human rights, it seeks to undermine those values and create alternative institutions and models. 

Unfortunately, this has been what’s happening in the UN. When China curtailed political freedom in Hong Kong this summer, two rival declarations circulated at the United Nations Human Rights Council. One, drafted by Cuba and commending Beijing’s move, won the backing of 53 nations. Another, issued by the U.K. and expressing concern, secured only 27 supporters. 

In addition, Beijing is pushing its civil servants, or those of clients and partners, to the helm of UN institutions that set global standards for air travel, telecommunications and agriculture. Gaining influence at the UN permits China to stifle international scrutiny of its behaviour at home and abroad. In March, Beijing won a seat on a five-member panel that selects UN rapporteurs on human-rights abuses—officials who used to target Beijing for imprisoning more than a million Uighurs at so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang.

Therefore, the short answer to your question is: no, unfortunately, the UN Human Rights Council CANNOT function effectively to deal with human rights issues anymore.” 

A Hong Kong demonstration (Photo: Studio Incendo, Flickr)

The United States withdrew from the UN human rights council two years ago. The direction of the council seems to be changing – is this true?

Ambassador Yao:Following up on what I have mentioned in the answer for question two, that was why the US withdrew from the council and worked to address human rights concerns through bilateral arrangements. Whether or not the US approach is right is a different question. The rest of the world should have paid more attention to the change of the direction of the Human Rights Council and other UN bodies. For example, the UN Secretariat in New York is working with Beijing to set up joint global data hubs based in China. Plans include a research center for crunching data from UN member states and a geospatial center to enlist China’s prowess with satellite surveillance. The rest of the world usually sees these things very differently from Beijing’s point of view. The democratic countries should be more vigilant.

It is encouraging to see that the EU has been talking about establishing its own new global human rights sanctions regime, or a so-called “European Magnitsky Act.” For a long time the EU has responded to human rights abuses on a case by case basis and usually reacted slowly and weakly. As I mentioned in my presentation at Lund University, an individual European country cannot stand up against China alone, but the European Union as a whole is different. The united EU can fight against China’s authoritarian expansionism and economic coercion. An EU human rights sanction regime will send a strong signal to China for its continued violations of human rights within and beyond its territories.” 

Emily Lewis