U.N. Human Rights Council Opens with 70% Dictatorships

Qin Gang

The 52nd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) convened this week — with 70 percent of the membership consisting of autocracies, dictatorships, and other non-democratic nations.

Some of the responses to U.N. Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer’s dour tweet suggested that the high proportion of unfree nations sitting in judgment over human rights could be taken as a sign of how difficult it is to implement and maintain robust multi-party democracies, with elections that are more than weary formalities or outright farces.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, who took over from his predecessor Michelle Bachelet in October, used the session to ask UNHRC member China to take his “grave concerns” about human rights violations against the Tibetans, Uyghur Muslims, and Hong Kong seriously, including “large-scale arbitrary detentions and ongoing family separations” of China’s oppressed populations.

“We also have concerns about the severe restriction of civic space more generally, including the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders and lawyers; and the impact of the national security law in Hong Kong,” he said.

Turk told the Chinese delegation that his office has “made important recommendations that require concrete follow-up.”

The grotesque spectacle of China, one of the world’s worst human rights offenders, sitting in a council seat while the High Commissioner rattled off its list of crimes against humanity and pushed “recommendations” that no one on Earth expects Beijing to implement was made even worse by the embarrassing conclusion of Bachelet’s tenure.

BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 15: Chile's President Michelle Bachelet (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the welcome ceremony for the Belt and Road Forum, at the International Conference Center on May 15, 2017 in Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing, China. (Photo by Kenzaburo Fukuhara-Pool/Getty Images)

Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Kenzaburo Fukuhara-Pool/Getty Images)

The previous High Commissioner was jerked around by Beijing for years before finally making her much-delayed visit to the Uyghur homeland, which China calls Xinjiang province, in May 2022. 

Bachelet’s trip was stage-managed by the Chinese Communist Party to a humiliating degree, but even at that, Beijing used its muscle at the U.N. to suppress Bachelet’s report on the Uyghurs for months. When it finally came out, human rights advocates around the world were horrified to hear Bachelet burbling about “poverty reduction programs” and “tremendous achievements” in Chinese human rights, with scarcely a word about China’s concentration camps or ethnic cleansing campaigns. Amid widespread calls for her resignation, Bachelet announced in June that she would not seek another term.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2022/07/31: Protesters hold placards expressing their opinion during the demonstration. Uyghurs and UK Muslim organizations gathered opposite the Chinese embassy in London to protest against the Chinese government's involvement in ongoing human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. (Photo by Thomas Krych/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Uyghurs and U.K. Muslim organizations gathered opposite the Chinese embassy in London to protest against the Chinese government’s involvement in ongoing human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. (Thomas Krych/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

China’s election to UNHRC in October 2020, slipping in with the lowest vote total since the council was founded in 2006, was sternly protested by the human rights community. China made a spectacle of itself as soon as it claimed its seat, lashing out at other members with wild and deeply offensive accusations of racism and unethical behavior every time they discussed Beijing’s offensives. UNHRC officials found it necessary to reprimand China for making “derogatory or inflammatory remarks” against human rights rapporteurs.

As for the other dismal members of the 52nd UNHRC session, Cuba used its perch to declare its “unflagging support” for the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, a viciously oppressive dictatorship ruled by left-wing dictator Daniel Ortega.

Cuba applauded the Ortega dictatorship for supposedly bringing “stable development, peace, justice, wellbeing, and social emancipation” to Nicaragua. Two weeks ago, a UNHRC-sanctioned investigation recommended charging Ortega with crimes against humanity.

Cuba itself was cited by the U.N. Committee Against Torture in May for “harassment, arbitrary arrests, intimidation, imprisonment, and reprisals against human rights defenders.”

Vietnam is a one-party Communist dictatorship that cleaned itself up a little to attract foreign investment, but still throws dissidents in dungeons for daring to question the regime. The human rights situation in Vietnam has grown worse since it was elected to a three-year term on UNHRC in October. 

The Vietnam Human Rights Network (VNHRN) pleaded with the U.N. not to let the Vietnamese Communist Party sit on the Human Rights Council until substantial improvements were made in free speech, political freedom, and freedom of religion, but its pleas were ignored.

Sudan is ruled by a junta that kidnaps and kills people for demanding representative government. Violence is spiking in its conflict zones as armed factions fight for power. As with just about every country where a military dictatorship seizes power to bring “stability” and “security” to the nation, instability and insecurity got worse after the civilian government was overthrown.

Eritrea is one of the least free countries in the world and its brutal military just came home after committing crimes against humanity in neighboring Ethiopia. They went especially hard on Eritrean refugees who fled across the border to escape their own repressive government.

Turk mentioned in his opening address to the UNHRC session that Eritrea is a country of particular concern because it is “increasing its use of forced and prolonged conscription, a practice that is akin to enslavement and the main driver of refugee outflows.”

In a time when slavery is regarded as one of the worst of humanity’s historic sins, the UNHRC includes members like Eritrea and China that are practicing slavery right now. It is difficult to find any evidence that inviting such countries to sit on the Human Rights Council improves their behavior or helps their captive people. Instead, as in the examples of Cuba and China above, tyrannies use their UNHRC perches to mock the very concept of human rights and turn the commission into a circus.


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