China could extend its influence in the United Nations Human Rights Council if the United States makes good on its threat to quit, hot on the heels of its shock withdrawal from the Paris climate deal this month, analysts said.
They made the remarks after US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley singled out China and other members of the council for criticism.
“Countries like Venezuela, Cuba, China, Burundi and Saudi Arabia occupy positions that obligate them to, in the words of the resolution that created the Human Rights Council, ‘uphold the highest standards’ of human rights. They clearly do not uphold those highest standards,” she said at the Graduate Institute of Geneva this month.
“If the Human Rights Council is going to be an organisation we entrust to protect and promote human rights, it must change. If it fails to change, then we must pursue the advancement of human rights outside of the council.”
Addressing the council in Geneva on the same day, the ambassador made it clear that “no country that is a human rights violator should be allowed a seat at the table”.
Among the 47 members in the council, 13 are Asia-Pacific states, with China the biggest power. Other Asian member states include the Philippines, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Last year, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte warned that he may leave the UN and invite China and African nations to form another global organisation. He issued the warning after calling UN human rights experts “stupid” for criticising his war on drugs, which has claimed about 7,000 lives.
“It’s probably very unlikely that Duterte and China would form some new UN-like system,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.
“What’s more probable is that countries like China, keenly recognising that the UN maintains considerable global prestige, will do everything possible to gain as much influence as possible within the UN, and shift the way the UN operates and its priorities in order to fit China’s own interests,” he said.
In March last year, the US led a group of 12 countries, including Britain and Japan, to issue a joint statement expressing concern over China’s “deteriorating human rights records”.
That statement was issued after five associates of a Hong Kong bookstore went missing. The bookstore specialised in works critical of the Chinese Communist Party, lending weight to speculation Beijing was behind the disappearances.
“Simply put, this sort of statement will be much less likely to occur without the leadership of the US, and governments that routinely violate human rights will receive less scrutiny,” Nee said.
China has complied with the UN’s human rights monitoring mechanism.
In August last year, it allowed Special Rapporteur Philip Alston to visit the country and review the human rights situation.
While Alston commended Beijing for letting him in, he complained of being followed by security officers posing as private citizens, making it “virtually impossible” for him to meet privately with civilians.
“The government warned the special rapporteur not to meet with individuals it considered ‘sensitive’, and those individuals were warned not to meet with the special rapporteur,” a report submitted to the council read.
“In one case, a person with whom the special rapporteur was supposed to meet was taken into custody for a couple of hours, thus preventing the meeting from happening.”
Farzana Aslam, principle lecturer of law at the University of Hong Kong, said that if the US withdrew from the rights council it would be a blow to the legitimacy of the UN itself.
“Despite its flaws the council is at least a forum that exists and operates, albeit somewhat dysfunctionally,” she said. “The US would do better to petition for reform than it would to abandon the institution, since there is no viable alternative in place at present.”
She said that the US could not lay claim to a clean record regarding human rights, citing the Guantanamo Bay detention centre where terrorist suspects are detained without trial.
“I don’t believe any nation comes to the council with clean hands,” she said.
Professor Michael Davis, a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, said Duterte always says “extreme things” and is generally not taken very seriously.
“But there is some concern that the US withdrawal would be a signal to human rights violators to further water down the Council, to fill the gap left with a weaker institution,” he said.
While the world generally looks to the US as a human rights defender, Davis said that President Donald Trump has called that into question with his outreach to authoritarian leaders and statements from his administration that signal human rights are not to get in the way of other policy concerns.
“With all these developments, there will surely be suspicion that any withdrawal will just be more of the same turn away from human rights. That being said, however, it would surely send a bad signal if the US withdrew, much as did the US withdrawal from the Paris accord,” he said.
Among the many criticisms levelled by Haley in Geneva was that elections for membership to the council were flawed and often decided before voting began. She also noted that the council had passed more than 70 resolutions targeting Israel but just seven on Iran.
The council was set up to serve as a forum for dialogue on human rights issues and to make recommendations to the General Assembly about how international human rights laws can be improved. It is made up of 47 UN members which are elected by the UN General Assembly.
The council’s 18-day regular session will end on June 23.