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Coming UN human rights council vote another test of US-China rivalry

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While human rights groups have touted the “don’t vote” strategy before – which some consider naive – civic organisations say their campaign is more forceful this year.

Seats on the council are hotly contested in part because it is among the few UN bodies that get results. Measures are passed by simple majority and permanent Security Council members the US, China, Russia, France and Britain lack a veto.

Thus even as the Security Council has failed to sanction Moscow over Ukraine, the Human Rights Council booted Russia off last year, launched an official inquiry, tabled resolutions and held spirited debates.

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“You have to be in it to win it,” said Marc Limon, executive director of Universal Rights Group, a civic group headquartered in Geneva, where the council is based. “That’s why China wants to be there, why Russia wants back in.”

Moscow’s return campaign has set up another UN showdown between democracies and authoritarian states, its outcome less assured than China’s campaign given Russia’s competitive race against Albania and Bulgaria for two Eastern European seats.

“If [Russia] were elected, it would be a catastrophe, for the credibility of the Human Rights Council, for the UN,’ said Limon.

“For the General Assembly one year to kick a country off the council for gross human rights violations, and then, less than a year later, to elect them back onto the body – you don’t need to be an expert in international relations to see how that will play with the public,” he added.

Local residents dig graves at the cemetery in the village of Hroza, near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. The day before, 52 people were killed when Russian missiles struck a house full of people mourning other losses in the war. Photo: Reuters

Human rights groups will need to push harder to check China’s and Russia’s influence, added Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“If you don’t want to vote for China or against China, then abstain,” he said. “Make it harder for China to get 97 votes. If they didn’t clear, there would have to be another ballot and symbolically it would be very important.”

A week ago, it looked like Russia would win, analysts said, as initial outrage over the invasion abated somewhat and Moscow’s lobbying campaign with African countries – including increasingly authoritarian Burkina Faso and Mali after recent coups – seemed to pay dividends.

But there appeared to be a late surge in support for Albania, they added, as Tirana organised events and met with member delegations in New York and Geneva.

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“Western diplomats have gotten quite worried,” said Richard Gowan, UN director with the International Crisis Group consultancy. “There are rumours that Albania is picking up a good deal of last-minute support though.”

Rana Siu Inboden, a senior international security fellow at the University of Texas, Austin and former State Department human rights official, said the West has been less than strategic about pursuing its interests at the UN.

“I’m glad I’m not working at the State Department trying to lobby on this because, for whatever reason, it is an uphill battle. The worst thing would be if both China and Russia end up on the council together.”

There is little sign that China has actively lobbied on Russia’s behalf, analysts said, in part because of its own candidacy and juggling act.

Beijing’s long-standing advocacy of territorial integrity and non-interference in other’s domestic affairs has made it difficult to push Moscow’s case too aggressively, they added, amid growing global concern over China’s own military posture toward Taiwan, the South China Sea and India.

In recent years, states that once shied away from human rights debates – other than to block measures critical of their records – have increasingly refashioned the debate.

Led by China, they have redefined human rights, from political expression to raising people out of poverty, orderly state control and citizen safety, which play to Beijing’s strengths as an economic powerhouse fixated on security.

“The structure of Human Rights Council elections and the way they’re set up is a microcosm of the way the international system is working and not working,” said Piccone, who served at the US National Security Council, State Department and Pentagon from 2000 to 2008.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the council kicked off a member that committed gross human rights violations, he said.

“That’s the upside. On the downside, Russia is running for election again, and it’s probably the most important vote this fall, a real bellwether on whether the UN will hold Russia responsible for ongoing violations,” Piccone added. “Compared with China, at least it’s a competitive slate.”

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China’s UN mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In May 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping defended Beijing’s human rights record, saying nations should be allowed to choose their own course.

“China has successfully embarked on a path of human rights development that conforms to the trend of the times,” he told a visiting council delegation. “We don’t need ‘masters’ that dictate to other countries.”

Fuelling uncontested elections are the significant resources member states spend lobbying and their desire to ensure that taxpayer money is not wasted.

Furthermore, even as Washington and US-led civic groups decry the lack of competition, experts say, the US is hardly blameless.

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When the US ran in 2009, for instance, it arm-twisted New Zealand to drop out so it could run uncontested.

A loss at the polls is embarrassing for any country, but particularly difficult in the US given its position as leading UN donor and strong Republican Party opposition to the institution.

“The worst of all is the US,” said Limon. “Every time they’ve been elected to the Human Rights Council, they’ve done so by engineering a clean slate.”

Limon added that urging member states to leave ballots blank for China or other alleged violators in unchallenged slates is unlikely to work. Three of the five regional blocs this year – Latin America and Central Europe are the exceptions – are uncontested.

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A better strategy, he argues, is to encourage more small states to run. This would widen the field, break the grip of a few larger countries reelected repeatedly and play well with the Global South.

Of the four uncontested Asia group seats this year, for example, big players China, Indonesia and Japan have held the post five times before, while the fourth, tiny Kuwait, has been on once.

Winners are required to step down for a year after two consecutive three-year terms on the 47-member body.

A Universal Rights Group report released this week underscores China’s growing clout and ability to further its agenda at the human rights body.

It has repeatedly voted against Western backed measures to expand political rights, failed to ratify key treaties and balked at investigations into its policies regarding Tibet, Hong Kong or Xinjiang, where up to 1 million ethnic Uygurs have reportedly been detained. A long stalled inquiry on religious freedom dates to 2006.

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Once again, however, the US record is hardly spotless, said Limon. A fractious Congress has even failed to ratify the seemingly non-controversial Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Furthermore, in the battle for UN influence, China is doing a better job than the US these days, he added.

After a period of sending hardline “wolf warrior” representatives to Geneva, Beijing has recently adopted a more conciliatory approach, posting Western-educated, increasingly deft diplomats.

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This contrasts with the US stance since it rejoined the council in 2022, following former President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out in 2018, Limon said.

“Since they came back, they don’t seem to have a strategy other than going after China” in the battle for hearts and minds, said Limon, compared with Beijing’s vocal support for popular development programmes.

“Whether you like it or not, China is the big dog in town. Along with Africa and the [Global South], they largely control the council. And the West keeps getting beaten.”

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