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Steps to Make the United Nations Address China’s Human Rights Situation More Effectively

Steps to Make the United Nations Address China’s Human Rights Situation More Effectively
The following suggestions were made by Dr. Yang Jianli, president of Initiatives for China/Citizen Power for China at the Forum entitled “Advance Human Rights:  the United Nations and China”. The forum was hosted by Freedom House and the United Nations Association on September 27, 2016.
Yang Jianli:
There are many general steps that the U.S. could take to improve UN human rights mechanisms. FIRST, in order to faithfully back their words with actions, the US and other democracies should resolve to help mainstream human rights in the work of UN, which, in turn, requires these democracies to first mainstream human rights in their bilateral diplomacy with dictatorships like China. Retiring U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon took a step in this direction by initiating the program designed to make every U.N. office and program take human rights considerations in account. But that effort has not really been implemented or embraced in an effective way. One fatal flaw is that U.N. personnel do not see member democracies integrating human rights policy in their own direct relations with other countries. Therefore, the U.S. should internally establish a firm understanding that human rights advance in China is in the national interest of the U.S. – including its national security interest. The U.S. should end the more than two decades-long practice of compartmentalizing human rights and artificially isolating it from other diplomatic or economic interests, and integrate China policy by linking human rights with other security, trade, environmental concerns, and so on, so forth.
Advancing Human Rights: United Nations and China
After that, there are specific concrete steps to take that would make the U.N. a more effective international human rights governing and protecting body.
1. In my view, apart from thinking with changes to the existing U.N. human rights mechanisms, the least the U.S. can and should do would be to use those mechanisms more vigorously and more effectively, and establish collective actions to do so. A good example of unprecedented collective action at the Human Rights Council was the joint statement issued by the U.S. and 11 other countries on March 10, 2016 condemning China’s human rights record.  We need more of this.  The next day the U.S. and Canada jointly hosted the Dalai Lama for a public event in Geneva.  China was furious, and reportedly urged many missions in Geneva not to attend the event.  I don’t think that effort of China was particularly successful, at least among the democracies.
Many countries are afraid of angering China. So they don’t push at all on human issues bilaterally, but the U.N. gives them a forum for confronting china collectively on human rights issues. The U.N. platform for collective action offers a solution to the I-FEAR-ABOUT-ACTING-ALONE,  a  dilemma that the democracies have been trapped in for years.
2.  UNHRC-Open ballot
Despite the generally strong work of the experts in the “special procedures” machinery of the Human Rights Council, the credibility gaps of the old Commission on Human Rights have remained. The General Assembly has repeatedly elected countries known for major human rights violations to Council membership.  Recall that, according to the establishing resolution, members elected and serving on the Council “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and cooperate fully with its mechanisms.” China is far from qualified but it has got elected three times with high votes. NOT surprisingly, the result is selective investigation, bias, and reluctance to condemn such gross abusers as China. These embarrassments are still endemic in how the Council conducts business.
About 125 out of the 193 UN member states are democracies. If all democracies cast principled votes, namely, upholding their own human rights standard or the standard established in founding resolution of the Council, countries like China, Cuba, Iran, Russia would have no chance to get elected.
The UN resolution that established the Council envisioned competitive elections in which states with the best human rights records would be elected. To this end,  a secret ballot was adopted. The past 10 years of practice have proved the opposite.  The secrete ballot only helps dictatorships bargain under the table with democracies and makes it possible for democracies to compromise principles without risking scrutiny by people at home.
I strongly suggest an open ballot system for membership election for the Council. It is dictators that are afraid of light most not the democracies. Open ballot will provide a lever to people of democracies to make democracies to cast just votes that are consistent with democratic principles.
This leads to another suggestion which I have proposed on a few occasions in the past year.
3. I propose, building on the authoritative Freedom House Index of Freedom in the World which rates countries on their upholding political rights and civil liberties for their citizens, that a second, parallel rating system be created. It would rank the world’s real democracies on the basis of what efforts they make to help promote political rights and civil liberties in other nations – especially in the most flagrant abusers of those rights and liberties like China. The index could be called the “Index of Nations’ Effort to Promote Freedom in the World”.
This index could be a mandate under the U.N.
Democracies’ voting records in the UN should be a major factor.
4. Next, the U.S. and other major democracies should lead effort to strengthen and enlarge communication between the UN human rights mechanism and people oppressed by dictatorships. The U.N. is a world body of states. But a major problem with it is that many states, China, for example, do NOT represent the will or interests of their people in conducting business in the world body. The U.N. human rights mechanisms should be a more accessible platform to give voice to those who suffer human rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government and other tyrannies. It is very important that their powerful voices be heard, and their stories be reported, at the U.N. —  not least  for the record they are creating.
5. Upgrade Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights and expand its capacity. If mainstreaming human rights in the U.N. is our goal, we must make two structural reforms.
–Elevate its status so that the UN Secretary General, or at least a Deputy Secretary General, should be be also the High Commissioner for Human Rights
— Improve the current meager budget for the office.
6. Facilitating the flow of information about what is happening in Geneva to people in China is equally important. It is crucial. I think the US translated the March 10 joint critical statement by 12 member nations into Chinese, after which the U.S. embassy in Beijing heard from hundreds of people words of thanks and appreciation for that.  Its so important to let people in China’s civil society know that we stand with them and are doing what we can to support them both bilaterally and at the world’s government, the U.N.
Ambassador Donald T. Bliss, President of UNA-NCA delivers opening remarks to the discussion.
Dr. Yang Jianli, Dr. Mark P. Lagon
Dr. Sophie Richardson
Dr. Xiao R. Li

Advancing Human Rights: The United Nations and China

Freedom House and the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area invite you to Advancing Human Rights: The United Nations and China.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016
5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Freedom House
1850 M Street NW
Suite 1100

Washington, D.C. 20036

Please join us for a candid discussion on how the United Nations can support human rights in China: What impact is the UN having on China’s human rights situation? Are the special rapporteurs, Universal Periodic Review process, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights making a difference? How is the Chinese government responding to the work of the UN on Human Rights in China? And how can the UN address China’s human rights situation more effectively?

Welcome Remarks

Ambassador Donald T. Bliss (ret)

Dr. Yang Jianli
Initiatives for ChinaDr. Xiao R. Li
Independent Scholar

Dr. Sophie Richardson
China Director
Human Rights Watch

Dr. Mark P. Lagon
Distinguished Scholar and Centennial Fellow
Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University
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