By: Jianli Yang – Oct 9, 2023
On October 10, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) will elect 15 new member states of the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to serve a three-year term beginning in January 2024. China is vying for seat. According to the Council’s founding resolution, members elected to the Council “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights [and] shall fully cooperate with the Council.” China is clearly far from qualified.
In the course of its affairs as a great nation, China has left large fingerprints on the canvas of human events. With respect to human rights, these fingerprints place China at the scene of so many activities, both domestic and international, that are so outside the norms of civilized nations that China’s membership in the UNHRC defies logic and reason.
When considering China’s human rights record, one needs look no further than various individuals (Liu Xiaobo, Ilham Tohti, Rahile Dawut, Geshe Phende Gyaltsen, Jimmy Lai, Joshua Wong, Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi, Gao Zhisheng, Guo Feixiong, Zhang Zhan, Dr. Li Wenliang, etc.); groups (Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, human rights lawyers, citizen journalists, Hong Kongers, etc.); atrocities (the Uyghur genocide, Xinjiang internment camps, Tibetan self-immolations, etc.); and policies (such as, forced evictions, the draconian and failed Zero-COVID policy, etc.)
As human rights activists, we strongly oppose the China’s candidacy for re-election to the UNHRC. But as realists, we know that we may not be able to prevent China’s re-election. For the past 16 years, since the UN Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to replace its predecessor (the UN Commission on Human Rights), we have consistently urged UN member states at the UN General Assembly to vote against China’s candidacy. Unfortunately, we have failed each time, and the UNGA has repeatedly elected China (as well as other nations with poor human rights records) to the Council. These embarrassments are still endemic in the way the Council conducts its business.
I understand very well that people who work for change in dark times are not bound to win, at least not in the timeframe they want. In dark times, light is precious; it always counts.
For my part, I would like to shed some light on this issue.
Undoubtedly, the UNHRC needs to be reformed. There are serious flaws in the design of the UNHRC, including the number of seats, the distribution of seats among four geographical groups, and the rules for electing member states. These flaws make it almost impossible to prevent countries with rampant human rights violations from being elected. I would like to focus on the election rules, which I believe are the most important issue.
According to Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” index, approximately 120 to 125 of the 193 UN member states are democracies. A country wins a seat if it receives a simple majority—at least 97 votes. If all democracies voted according to their own liberal principles and emphasized the importance of each candidate member state’s human rights record, then countries like China, Russia, Iran, and Cuba would have no chance of being elected to the UNHRC.
The UN resolution that established the UNHRC envisioned competitive elections in which states with the best human rights records would be elected. To that end, a secret ballot was adopted. The past 16 years of practice have proven the opposite. The secret ballot only helps dictatorships negotiate under the table with democracies, and enables democracies to compromise their principles without risking scrutiny from their constituents.
I strongly suggest an open voting system for the election of Council members. It is the dictators, like Xi Jinping, who are most afraid of the light, not the democracies. Open ballots will give citizens of democracies a lever to encourage their country to vote in accordance with democratic principles.
This leads me to make another proposal. Specifically, building on the authoritative Freedom in the World index, which assesses the extent to which countries uphold the political rights and civil liberties of their citizens, I propose that a second (parallel) rating system be created by a global institution that is both authoritative and credible. It would rank the world’s true democracies on the basis of their efforts to help promote political rights and civil liberties in other nations—particularly in countries like China, where human rights abuses and encroachments on freedom are most pervasive. The index could be called the “Index of Nations’ Efforts to Promote Freedom in the World.” The voting records of democratic U.N. members should be an important factor in the index.
These are significant steps, at least for those of us who believe that light is precious and necessary in times of deep darkness.
Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives and the author of For Us, The Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth and It’s Time for a Values-Based “Economic NATO”.