China Champions New UN Human Rights Council Model

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Calling it the "best possible compromise," the Chinese government is urging the United States to set aside its objections and support a proposal to reform the U.N.'s human rights mechanism.

"The resolution is not perfect, but it is a compromise that can be accepted by all U.N. members, so China hopes it can be adopted," the official Xinhua news agency quoted China's envoy at the U.N. in Geneva, Sha Zukang, as saying.

The diplomat was speaking after the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) opened its 62nd and probably final annual gathering on Monday.

The 53-member body met for just a few minutes, then went into immediate recess for a week due to wrangling in New York over how its envisaged successor, the Human Rights Council, will look and operate.

"Currently only the Unites States is against the new resolution, which is actually the best possible compromise among U.N. members and reflects a fragile balance of all members' concerns," Sha said.

Washington is withholding support for the draft resolution establishing the Council, on the grounds some of the key issues it has been pressing for did not make it into the text.

Primarily, the U.S. is worried that countries with poor human rights records will win seats on the new body -- the very problem that made a mockery of the UNCHR, critics say.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for the world body's human rights function to be overhauled was largely based on criticism arising from rights violators gaining seats on the Commission in an attempt to dodge censure.

But the draft Human Rights Council resolution placed before the U.N. by General Assembly president Jan Eliasson fails to set a two-thirds majority vote for membership, as called for by Annan, the U.S., and human rights campaigners.

Instead, an absolute majority of the U.N. General Assembly's 191 members will be sufficient to elect a member onto the Council, while voting a member off the new body will require a two-thirds majority vote.

Nonetheless, Annan and major human rights groups are pressing the U.S. to go with the Eliasson compromise. Developing nations also support the move, as do the Islamic bloc and America's traditional allies in the European Union.

Australia said it "would have preferred stronger language" and tougher membership requirements, and urged the U.N. to continue discussions with Washington that would result in the widest possible support for the new body.

Both Britain and Australia argued that the new body needed U.S. support in order to be effective.

Much attention has been given the fact that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are backing the Eliasson text, but a number of other rights watchdogs and non-governmental organizations are not.

Opposition also came this week from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, co-chairs of a congressionally-mandated bipartisan taskforce on the U.N. which among other things recommended the abolition of the UNCHR.

In an op-ed published this week, they said the Human Rights Council proposal on offer did not do enough to address the weaknesses of the discredited Commission.

Gingrich and Mitchell said the U.S. should mount a major diplomatic effort at the U.N. and with democratic nations, to press for a strong and effective body that lives up to the founding principles of the U.N.

'Repressive regimes'

China's support for the Eliasson proposals comes against a background of controversial behavior at the UNCHR.

China, which is on Freedom House's list of the world's 18 "most repressive regimes," is one of the countries whose conduct at the Commission's annual sessions in Geneva has drawn criticism from rights campaigners.

A member of the Commission continuously since 1982, Beijing has frequently used its position and influence with allies to block resolutions, usually sponsored by the U.S., relating to human rights abuses in China.

China has frequently made use of a procedural maneuver called a "no action" motion to avoid having its record discussed, let alone voted on.

Chinese envoys have also criticized the U.S. and other Western nations for introducing country-specific resolutions at Geneva -- sometimes called "name and shame" resolutions -- against its allies such as Cuba, Sudan and North Korea.

Beijing customarily bristles at outside criticism of its rights record, and in recent years has taken to responding to the publication of the State Department's annual report on global human rights by releasing a report of its own focusing solely on the U.S.

In a further indication of how China regards the U.S. stance on human rights, the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily said in an editorial Monday that Washington wanted to change membership standards because the UNCHR included "too many developing countries whose views on human rights are not the same as the U.S."

That situation meant the U.S. was not easily able to use "the pretext of human rights" to impose pressure on certain countries, it said.

See earlier story:
Voting by UN Rights Commission Reveals Divisions (Apr. 15, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow