China’s “growing influence” in the UN human rights bodies is “worrying”, according to a Geneva-based rights organisation.
An NGO analysis sheds light on China’s “systematic” attempts to undermine the independence of UN human rights committees. The Geneva-based bodies are responsible for overseeing that states abide by the rights treaties they have signed up to.
The report, released on Wednesday by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), details how China has been seeking to get Chinese former government officials elected to the human rights bodies that are “favourable” towards it. It also exposes how the leading power has been blocking participation of rights activists, even going as far as pressuring UN office staff to not publish the reports they have submitted to stifle criticism.
“The incidents recounted, while qualitative in nature, provide compelling evidence of China’s ability to effectively and unrelentingly restrict civil society engagement with [UN treaty bodies] in the context of specific reviews, and deter independent sources from speaking up,” the report states.
The report adds to growing suspicion of Beijing’s sway over the UN human rights office, after it led a successful campaign last year to delay for months the publication of a report concluding that mass detention of Uyghurs and other religious minorities in Xinjiang could amount to crimes against humanity.
Far reaching consequences
Set up between the 1970s and the 2010s, treaty bodies examine how countries are doing in implementing the human rights agreements they’re part of. Despite the treaties being legally binding, the committees don’t have the power to force states to comply with their obligations. But for states with bad human rights track records, reviews can be scathing.
“When treaty bodies do their work well, they document violations and that can lead to serious actions such as the establishment of commissions of inquiry at the Human Rights Council, or even refereeing situations to the International Criminal Court, which can then lead up to indictment of national leaders or heads of state,” Vincent Ploton, co-author of the report, told Geneva Solutions. “So the consequences can be far reaching.”
The bodies are each made up between 10 to 18 experts meant to be independent. But it is ultimately the state parties to the treaties that nominate and vote to elect members of the committees in a secret ballot. China, which is party to six out of the ten treaties, has consistently sponsored candidates that have previously worked for the government and that work in institutions or organisations with close ties to the government, Sarah Brooks, co-author of the report, explained.
At least one of them, Xia Jie currently sitting in the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), has formal ties to the Chinese communist party.
The authors recount how in 2015 during China’s evaluation by the Committee Against Torture (CAT), the Chinese committee member was kicked out by the chair for taking photos of the activists present, an intimidation tactic that China but also other countries have been known to use against campaigners who come to Geneva.
Seven Chinese activists were also reportedly prevented from travelling to Geneva to participate in the evaluation through threats and even detention. Felice Gaer, CAT chair at that time, recalled the event at a panel organised to launch the report.
This “creates a chilling effect”, leading “those who might be facing particular risks of reprisals to walk back their interest in participating in the process”, Brooks told Geneva Solutions.
The Chinese government has particularly targeted Uyghur and Tibetan groups, telling the office not to publish their reports on the UN human rights website under the pretext that they are “splitists” and therefore their input is misinformation, Gaer recalled at the panel.
Ploton said this external pressure exerted on UN staff is even “more worrying”, but said. At the same time, reports submitted by what civil society groups call Gongos, meaning government organised NGOs, that pose as civil society while promoting state interests, have been flooding the reviews, making it hard for the experts to know which sources to trust.
Speaking at the panel, William Nee of the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders warned that avenues for expression in China, from press to social media to academia, had been closing in recent years, making the UN system all the more important for Chinese rights activists.
China is set to be evaluated by the Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in February, followed by the CEDAW in May.
In an email response to Geneva Solutions, the Chinese permanent mission to the UN in Geneva rejected the report, calling the accusations “groundless and unjustified”.
China is far from being the only country trying to influence the treaty bodies. The report also mentions Saudi Arabia and Russia. An analysis by the Geneva Academy from 2018 found that 44 per cent of treaty body expert members had experience working for the executive branch in their respective countries, as opposed to independent civil society groups or academia.
Ploton explained that this was allowed by countries practising “horse trading”, meaning that they agree to vote for a candidate in exchange for a vote for theirs.
Treaty bodies members adopted in 2012 the Addis Ababa guidelines, which spell out what independence and impartiality means for them, but the authors say Geneva Academy’s findings show there has been little progress since then. A major review of the treaty bodies system took place in 2020 for which civil society “had high hopes”, Ploton said.
But in the end, “the process was a failure”, he said, describing the issue of reforming treaty bodies as a “hot potato” no state or UN official wanted to hold.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” he said. “What is unique about China is how systematic it is.”
China has also been pushing for reforms to keep the expert groups in check, for example keeping them from doing follow-ups after a review or even banning NGOs that are not accredited by the UN Economic and Social Council, which had been blocking for years certain NGOs from being approved until recently.
A few countries including the Nordics and the United Kingdom have taken steps of their own to make sure that candidates are independent. “But the number of countries that take the process seriously is too narrow,” Ploton said.
The ISHR calls in the report for the creation of an independent vetting process, in the image of the International Criminal Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which have independent expert panels to monitor member elections. Both were NGO-led initiatives, as were the treaty bodies, Ploton said.
“Perhaps it's on us to make that change happen,” he added.
This article has been updated to include the response of the Chinese mission to the UN in Geneva to a request for comment, delivered after the original time of publication.