Western countries challenged by ‘human rights’ bureaucracies they created – analysis

Written by on May 30, 2022

The US is concerned that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has traveled to China and been accused of whitewashing human rights abuses. 

The Washington Post ran an op-ed this week claiming that the UN has become a “tool of China’s genocide denial.” While Bachelet did urge Beijing to review counter-terrorism policies, overall the visit has been conducted without any ruffled feathers there. In addition, Covid has been used as an excuse, as many countries have done in recent years, to control and curtail the visit.  

Washington said it “remains concerned” about Bachelet’s trip, according to CNN. “Bachelet started her China trip, the first by a UN Human Rights High Commissioner in 17 years, on Monday in the southern city of Guangzhou before heading to Xinjiang. Her office said last year it believed Uyghurs in Xinjiang had been unlawfully detained, mistreated and forced to work,” the report said.

“I have raised questions and concerns about the application of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures under broad application, particularly the impact on the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities,” she said Saturday. 

China has said it doesn’t need any human rights preaching from the West or outsiders. That leaves America to merely sit and complain.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome, Italy October 31, 2021. (credit: Tiziana Fabi/Pool via REUTERS)

“We are concerned the conditions Beijing authorities imposed on the visit did not enable a complete and independent assessment of the human rights environment in [China], including in Xinjiang, where genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing,”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

“The High Commissioner should have been allowed confidential meetings with family members of Uyghur and other ethnic minority diaspora communities in Xinjiang who are not in detention facilities but are forbidden from traveling out of the region,” he said. 

The visit to China has underlined how the West has lost much of the bureaucratic struggle over human rights issues. While Western media and governments still play an outsized role in setting the narrative regarding human rights, overall it is the authoritarian regimes who have learned how to take control of institutions and shield themselves from critique. Whether it is Iran, North Korea, Cuba, China, Russia or Turkey, all of the authoritarian regimes know that they have to work together at the UN and other forums to make sure they control not only the human rights committees and groups, but that they choose the judges and those who oversee human rights reports.

Which human rights are worth paying attention to?

This control, like an old-boys network controlling any oversight of insider trading, means that human rights rules have largely been outsourced to Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Ankara. That is why protests this week in Iran get no notice and why Turkey can openly threaten invasion and ethnic cleansing of Syria and no one says anything.  

Ankara’s role in Syria, for instance, is as bad as the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s, but no one has stood up to them. Russia and China often work together at the UN Security Council to block any condemnation of authoritarian regimes. This is why Russia likely won’t face any investigation about its abuses in Ukraine. And China has easily silenced dissidents in Hong Kong.  

Beijing knows it is on the winning side in the human rights bureaucracy.

“The US, Britain and other Western countries have been repeatedly staging political farces around the UN high commissioner for human rights’ visit to China.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin

China and the Catholic Church

China has not only reined in any human rights critique, but is also working with the Catholic Church to end critique of itself. The Guardian noted on Monday that “for the first time in 33 years, church services to commemorate the Tienanmen Square crackdown will not be held in Hong Kong, erasing one of the last reminders of China’s bloody suppression of the 1989 protests.”

The report notes that “the annual Catholic masses were one of the last ways for Hong Kongers to come together publicly to remember the deadly clampdown in Beijing on 4 June 1989, when the Chinese government set tanks and troops on peaceful demonstrators.”

The Vatican, apparently preferring to work with Russia more than Western democracies, has also been careful in its critique of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is in stark contrast to Pope John Paul II, who stood up to the Soviet Union.

The degree to which authoritarian regimes today run human rights at the UN and other forums is a major break with the past. Human rights also becomes the tool that authoritarian regimes use against their adversaries, repackaging the concepts that were pushed by Western democracies, so that they can be used at various international forums on issues like women’s or childrens’ rights.  

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