70% of UN Human Rights Council pose threats to freedoms, China’s influence growing
Human Rights Outlook 2023
by Sofia Nazalya,
Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term as China’s leader has enshrined his position as the country’s most powerful politician since Mao Zedong. Under Xi, Beijing has shifted from passively defending against global criticism of its rights record, to not just forming, but advocating its own brand of human rights. A key vehicle for this has emerged as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the intergovernmental body charged with the promotion and protection of global human rights, whose members feature a selection of the world’s most oppressive countries, including Sudan, Eritrea and Pakistan.
The effectiveness and credibility of the UNHRC has been called into question on numerous occasions, and not without reason. Our data shows that nearly three quarters of the UNHRC member countries are categorised as high or extreme risk for civil and political rights, revealing a potential shared advantage in the watering down of international action on human rights. But China is also using its economic power to sway council votes.
Beijing’s increasingly active role in the international human rights system comes at a precarious period of global democratic deterioration, economic slowdown and severe political polarisation – all with knock-on effects on human rights. The upshot is that international human rights norms may weaken at the expense of vulnerable populations. This has implications for business. Companies contending with an increasingly complex due diligence landscape, also now face the challenge of navigating and balancing competing, and often conflicting, human rights standards.
Human rights performance of member states undercuts credibility
Beijing’s illiberal vision of human rights has gained traction with states dependent on Chinese investment through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or with similarly repressive regimes. At least 35 of the 47 member states of the UNHRC belong to the BRI – most of which are Asian or African countries with similarly poor – and in some cases, worse – scores across our human rights indices.
Figure 1 shows that more than half of the 47 members of the UNHRC are rated as high or extreme risk in all four of our human rights categories: labour rights, civil and political rights, human development and human security. The worst performing category is in civil and political rights where 33 states, or 70% of the Council, are high or extreme risk, followed by labour rights 64%, human security at 62% and human development at 53%.
The poor rights record of UNHRC members clearly shows that merely ratifying human rights treaties does not equate to action. A closer look at our data reveals that the poor enforcement of laws is a key driver of the frequent and severe violations that take place on the ground.
Figure 2: China’s performance across key human rights issues
|Freedom of Assembly|
|Arbitrary Arrest and Detention|
|Right to Privacy|
|Freedom of Opinion and Expression|
Source: Verisk Maplecroft
For China, some human rights are more equal than others
Xi’s desire to export a revisionist view of human rights has turned the UNHRC into a geopolitical battleground for competing standards. Beijing’s statist, ‘development first’ human rights framework undermines individual freedoms and emphasizes economic development above all other rights. This provides a smokescreen for illiberal states to appear engaged on human rights, but effectively eludes accountability and scrutiny of rights abuses – particularly those perpetrated by the state.
Increasingly sophisticated Chinese political maneuvering of key UNHRC mechanisms has seen global criticism contained, with states increasingly partaking in the whitewash of Beijing’s rights record. Its most astounding diplomatic victory at the Council came with the rejection of a US-proposed draft resolution on holding a debate on Xinjiang in October 2022. Perhaps the most surprising votes came from Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia, the UAE and Qatar, pointing to Beijing’s sizable leverage on states, and in particular, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) signatories.
Democratic backsliding puts civil and political rights at risk
The most notable divergence of the Chinese view on human rights is its disregard for civil and political rights, particularly to free speech and expression. This brand of authoritarianism is echoed by the nine other extreme risk countries in this category. Our data shows that six of the top 20 worst performers in our Civil and Political Rights Index are current UNHRC members – Eritrea (ranked 4th highest risk out of 197 countries), Somalia (5th), Sudan (8th), Pakistan (11th), China (14th) and Bangladesh (18th) (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Top 20 worst performers in the Civil and Political Rights Index
|12||Central African Republic|
Source: Verisk Maplecroft
Furthermore, as seen in Figure 4, our data shows a trend of democratic regression among Council members, most of whom belong to the global South. In total, 26 states saw their scores worsen in our Democratic Governance Index since 2017-Q1, with significant shifts in scores for Kyrgyzstan, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, United States, Paraguay, Sudan, Nepal, Honduras, Pakistan and Chile. Unsurprisingly, seven out of 11 of these countries also saw their scores in Civil and Political rights decline, demonstrating how curbs on free speech and assembly drive democratic backsliding.
Without adequate human rights due diligence, BRI will fuel human rights violations
Civil and political rights are not the only human rights at risk. Most UNHRC members are lagging in labour rights, with our data categorising five members as ‘extreme’ risk and 25 as ‘high’ risk. Of those, 18 recorded a drop in their score for labour rights since 2017. Except for India, Mexico and Honduras, all 16 other countries in this list are BRI signatories, fueling concerns of a further deterioration in labour rights in the implementation of BRI projects.
Problematic labour rights practices have been widely reported in BRI projects, many of which are taking place in countries with weak governance and endemic corruption. Emerging markets drawn to China’s lack of demands when it comes to human rights due diligence are likely to see an uptick in labour rights violations as the BRI expands.
With the threat of a global recession hanging in the balance, UNHRC members dependent on Chinese investments (and loans), such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Cameroon, to name a few, are not only likely to back Beijing at the UN, but to turn a blind eye to violations that occur as a result of BRI projects.
Businesses must be careful not to partake in whitewashing
Businesses are not exempt from China’s ‘normfare’ on human rights. As friction continues to grow between China and the West, companies will find it increasingly challenging to maintain a balance between two competing human rights views. While China encourages businesses to abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), it is likely to use this framework as a human rights mouthpiece to demonstrate commitment to social issues, while in turn censoring companies on reporting on politically sensitive subjects.
Ultimately, while we expect that China will not be successful at the wholesale rewriting of international human rights norms, its growing influence at the UNHRC will create greater polarisation, and therefore weaken the capacity of the body to shine a light on human rights abuses. Beijing’s attempts to obscure its human rights record also hinders the ability of businesses to gain a transparent picture of the situation on the ground. This makes it more vital than ever for companies to access independent and objective sources of risk intelligence to gain a true picture of the global human rights risk landscape.