“A disease that is spreading – north, south, east, and west.” This is how United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier this year described the lack of attention worldwide to human rights. But Guterres should also be concerned about pressure on human rights from within; notably the pressure that China, a permanent UN Security Council member, is putting on key UN bodies.
On April 26, Dolkun Isa – a well-known activist who campaigns from Germany on behalf of Uyghur Muslims, a community long repressed by the Chinese government – was attending a forum on indigenous issues at UN headquarters in New York. Although he was fully accredited to participate in the gathering, Isa said that after leaving proceedings in Conference Room 4, he was confronted by UN security in the hallway who told him to leave the premises immediately. He was given no reason for this, and although his accreditation remained valid, he was not allowed to re-enter the building later that day or when the forum resumed on April 28. When Human Rights Watch sought an explanation, the spokesperson’s office said it had no information on the specific case.
This was not an isolated incident. In January, as the UN welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to its Geneva office, it sent home roughly 3,000 UN staff, citing “logistical” needs – while also preventing nongovernmental organizations from entering the complex. In introducing President Xi, Secretary-General Guterres praised China for its commitment to multilateralism and to the UN, but raised no concerns about human rights violations.
It’s been three years since the 2014 death in detention of activist Cao Shunli, who was imprisoned by Chinese authorities for her efforts to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. To this day China has given no adequate explanation for her death, let alone punish anyone who might be responsible. And in just a few weeks UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Philip Alston will report on his August 2016 visit to China, during which officials restricted his investigations.
The UN leadership should get serious about eradicating the “disease” of human rights violations and protecting this critical pillar of UN work. That means publicly assuring China’s human rights advocates that the UN belongs equally to them, and to push back forcefully against China’s efforts to undermine these mechanisms.