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A United Nations peacekeeper stands alongside a road near the refugee camp of Saint Sauveur, in the Central African Republic capital, Bangui, November 29, 2015. © 2015 Reuters
UN budget negotiations are heating up – and not only because the Trump administration wants to cut US$570 million from UN peacekeeping budgets. Behind closed doors, China is pushing to defund UN human rights officers at UN missions.

It’s mostly happening under the radar. Very few journalists cover the UN budget consultations. Yet numerous diplomats who follow the budget talks told Human Rights Watch that a basement conference room has become a site for hotly contested “horse trading” over the future of human rights monitoring in UN peacekeeping. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying it was important to highlight what China is trying to do.

Human rights officers monitor, investigate, and report on alleged abuses, and their presence can deter killings, kidnappings, and other violations.

Beijing’s negotiators, backed by Russia and some other UN members, want to eliminate 19 human rights experts in the Central African Republic, diplomats said. The move would effectively end the UN’s ability to monitor violence against women and children there, according to one western diplomat. China also wants funding cuts at missions in Mali and South Sudan that could harm human rights monitoring, according to diplomats and draft resolutions reviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Several diplomats said China was also pushing to defund some human rights posts at the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO – despite the rights abuses piling up there. In March, two UN experts investigating extrajudicial killings in the country’s Kasai province were murdered.

China, in the midst of the biggest domestic rights crackdown since the Tiananmen Square massacre, is unlikely to get everything it wants in the UN budget negotiations. But diplomats said it would likely score some successes by getting Russia and other countries to support cutting human rights officers. Since the US wants to slash US$200 million from MONUSCO’s US$1.2 billion budget, there’s reason to worry that line items paying for human rights officers could be eliminated.

There is nothing wrong with adding efficiency and cost-effectiveness to UN peacekeeping and its roughly US$8 billion budget, as the US and others have called for. But human rights components are worth building up and improving, not dismantling. Diplomats negotiating the budget should ensure that in their search for efficiencies and savings, they don’t eviscerate human rights monitoring.

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