China, Russia, and the United Nations Human Rights Council
In October 2020, the United Nations elected 15 nations to sit on the 47-member Human Rights Council. The elected countries are as follows: Bolivia, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, France, Gabon, Malawi, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Senegal, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan. These nations will serve three-year terms, commencing January 2021.
The Human Rights Council is “an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe”. Its primary function is to examine any behaviour of Member States which may potentially threaten the safety of their civilians and then, if necessary, make policy recommendations to offending states on ways to improve their conduct. The Council has little to no enforcement power and so relies heavily on international legitimacy and credibility in order to give weight to its recommendations. However, with nations like China and Russia in its ranks, it is safe to say that the Council’s credibility is tenuous at best.
Since 2014, China has been credibly accused of state-committed atrocities against the Uyghur minority. Reports have indicated that more than 380 “re-education camps'' operate in Xinjiang, China. These camps likely use mass sexual violence, sterilisation, and torture as means to control and terrorise the Uyghur population. While China consistently denies these accusations, evidence suggesting that the camps are very real and pose a very serious threat to human rights continues to accumulate.
Numerous influential world leaders have come forward to condemn the actions of the Chinese state. On his last day as United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo stated, "I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state”. Other US statesmen have shared similar sentiments, including the current US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. In January 2021, Blinken stated, “My judgment remains that genocide was committed against the Uyghurs and that hasn't changed”. Leaders of numerous other states - including the UK, Germany, and Canada - have condemned China’s actions. Yet nothing has changed. China has not faced any meaningful or significant repercussions for its violations against the Uyghurs. Instead of punishment for its conduct, the country was elected to sit on the Human Rights Council.
China is certainly not the only questionable choice for the Council. Russia’s human rights record has steadily declined in recent years. The country has been using increasingly violent methods to exert control of its populace. Its use of deadly nerve agents to carry out political assassinations has caught the attention of the international community, but again no strict action has been taken by the UN to curb such behaviour. While the UN has criticised Russia for its use of deadly weapons against its citizens, it has not gone further than moral condemnation. In August 2020, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. He became violently ill and was immediately evacuated to a Berlin hospital where he later recovered.
The consensus amongst many global leaders is that the Russian state is responsible for Navalny's attempted murder, with two independent UN rights specialists calling for open investigations into this incident. While Russia was condemned for this incident, and several other poisonings that can be traced back to the state, no firm penalty was handed down. Navalny - a fierce critic of President Putin - is currently being held in a Russian penal colony that was likened to a “concentration camp". Navalny received a three and a half year sentence. The official charge was for breach of parole for an old fraud conviction but Navalny argued he could not abide by parole rulings while he was in Berlin fighting for his life after being poisoned. Several Navalny supporters are currently on house arrest after “inciting mass violations” of COVID-19 restrictions by attempting to organise demonstrations to protest his imprisonment. Despite the use of violence to enforce political conformity, Russia currently also sits on the UN Human Rights Council.
The presence of violent human rights violators on the United Nations Human Rights Council is a cruel irony. It strips away a significant portion of its credibility and leaves it a hollow shell of performative activism that fails to protect some of the most vulnerable people around the world. Having egregious offenders sit on the Human Rights Council is shattering its legitimacy and thus hindering the Council's ability to carry out its declared mission of protecting the vulnerable. If the UN wants to maintain its credibility on the international stage and be a true protectorate of human rights, it must rethink its existing relationship with China and Russia.