A United Nations review of China’s human rights record set to occur in January should shine a light on Beijing’s atrocity crimes. But there are three ways in which this Universal Periodic Review (UPR) may actually worsen rather than improve the human rights situation inside China.
In 2006, the U.N. created the UPR, in which every U.N. member state must undergo an examination of its human rights performance every 4.5 years. The idea is that through good faith dialogue with other states, governments can improve their human rights record. The process depends on states making and accepting strong, clear recommendations linked to real progress. Yet not only do highly abusive governments also get to participate, but also there is no mechanism to block recommendations that effectively endorse ongoing human rights violations.
Beijing’s lack of good faith in the process is the first and fundamental problem. Since its last review in 2018, instead of working with U.N. human rights experts to improve the situation on the ground, the Chinese government has worsened its record in terms of cooperation with U.N. human rights mechanisms. This includes the Chinese government’s dishonorable distinction of consistently topping the list of governments that persecute human rights defenders for cooperating with those very U.N. mechanisms. Beijing is notorious for manipulating U.N. processes to shield itself from scrutiny, and it is likely to do so again at the upcoming UPR.
Second, our research, designed to help states approach China’s next review strategically, illuminates how Beijing manipulates UPR recommendations. In the last review, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng declared that his government had accepted 284 of 346 recommendations. However, the majority of these accepted recommendations were so weak or vague that any progress toward improving human rights could not be measured.
For example, Hungary encouraged Beijing to “Continue to protect the rights of vulnerable groups.” But it did not specify any particular vulnerable groups. It also misleadingly asked China to “continue” to do something that China had not done: to protect vulnerable groups. China accepted Hungary’s recommendation – and continued to discriminate against, and violate the rights of, migrant workers, LGBTQ+ persons, ethnic minorities, and others.
Third, dozens of the recommendations that China eagerly accepted effectively endorsed its oppressive laws and policies. These recommendations often come from states that are themselves notorious for violating human rights. For example, Iran suggested that China “Safeguard its political system and the development path chosen by its own people.” But this sort of recommendation seeks to legitimize the Chinese government’s persecution of human rights defenders and dissidents who push for democracy and human rights.
Many governments operating in good faith are still under the impression that they should aim at crafting recommendations likely acceptable by China. Our message to them is clear: doing so would waste a critical opportunity for advancing human rights and inadvertently help defeat the purpose of the UPR.
This moment calls for great courage in calling out China for its human rights abuses. Mainland human rights defenders and lawyers in China face severe persecution. In Hong Kong, the 2020 National Security Law (NSL) has allowed authorities to rapidly dismantle civil and political rights, with the U.N. Human Rights Committee calling for “concrete steps” to repeal the NSL and “in the meantime, refrain from applying it.” Human rights are systematically denied in Tibet, with particular concern for freedom of religion and cultural rights. Beijing is credibly accused of committing ongoing crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region.
Given this crisis, states must focus on making strong recommendations, invoking the credible work by U.N. human rights experts on China since 2018. States should recommend China to implement the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ suggestions for change in its Xinjiang assessment.
Beijing may well reject these and other tough recommendations, but building a body of evidence showing its refusal to cooperate with U.N. human rights mechanism is useful. That body of evidence can in turn inform U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) votes on investigations in the Uyghur region and China’s suitability for HRC membership.
The many victims and survivors of Beijing’s vast human rights abuses need a review that brings them immediate relief and moral support, not one that endorses those realities. Diplomats participating in this review must also recall that these reviews create an opportunity to speak truth to Chinese authorities – an opportunity not available to the vast majority of people inside China.
Diplomats should prepare to offer up precise recommendations on the hardest issues with a view toward making a real difference. Anything less betrays human rights defenders, wastes a rare opportunity – and emboldens the abusers.