A United Nations Security Council vote on Syria last month offers fresh evidence that China is using its growing influence to curtail the UN’s role in protecting human rights, in this case with help from Cote d’Ivoire.
On March 19, abstentions by the three African countries on the Security Council -- Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Equatorial Guinea -- allowed Russia and China to block a formal briefing on Syria’s disastrous human rights situation.
The briefing by the UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein would have highlighted the plight of civilians trapped in places like Eastern Ghouta, the besieged Damascus neighborhood that the Syrian-Russian military alliance has subjected to frequent indiscriminate attacks.
Zeid ended up giving an informal briefing in a conference room near the Security Council chamber, but the council’s failure to officially discuss Syria’s human rights situation demonstrated tragic indifference to human suffering.
However, there are now signs that Côte d'Ivoire may be regretting its decision. On April 8, it joined eight other Security Council members to call for an emergency meeting of the council after a chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7.
China is becoming increasingly aggressive in its attempts to shrink space for dialogue on human rights issues at the United Nations, both in the Security Council and at dedicated human rights entities like the Human Rights Council.
Nevertheless, Côte d'Ivoire's March 19 abstention was surprising. The government of President Alassane Ouattara has its human rights problems, but it has promoted rights abroad by supporting the International Criminal Court in the face of attacks by other African leaders.
Since joining the Security Council in January, it has also supported a peaceful transfer of power in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila's constitutional two-term limit ended in December 2016.
Ouattara himself said in October 2016 that, “The United Nations Security Council must be the principal organ in which courageous decisions are taken, to save people and states from conflicts and wars, with the suffering and distress that they bring.”
Côte d’Ivoire knows the value of Security Council action to protect civilians during armed conflict. The country is only seven years removed from a bloody decade of political violence, culminating in the 2010-11 post-election crisis, when then-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to Ouattara following 2010 presidential elections.
A UN peacekeeping mission, first deployed to Côte d’Ivoire following a 2002-03 armed conflict, had a mixed record of protecting civilians. But a March 2011 Security Council resolution authorizing peacekeepers to target heavy weapons that pro-Gbagbo forces were using against civilians, a decision that ultimately accelerated the end of the 2010-11 crisis, was a rare example of robust UN action in the face of serious human rights abuses. Prior to the resolution, Zeid’s predecessor as UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, gave powerful testimony on the plight of Ivorian victims.
Why, then, did Côte d’Ivoire not want to hear from Zeid about the abuses now being suffered by Syrians?
Security Council members that invited him to New York, including the United States, France and the United Kingdom, said Côte d’Ivoire had initially promised it would support the hearing. But several well-placed diplomats told us that a high-level and aggressive diplomatic intervention from China, which has invested heavily in Ivorian infrastructure projects, led Côte d’Ivoire to change its mind.
The nation will have opportunities to redeem itself during the remainder of its term on the Security Council.
In addition to its future votes on issues involving human rights and civilian protection in Syria and elsewhere, it will remain a swing vote on the procedural motions that, unlike Security Council resolutions, can’t be vetoed by a Permanent Five member. Although rare, these votes are crucial to enable the council to shed light on other human rights abuses, such as the humanitarian plight of North Koreans, for which China will attempt to prevent international scrutiny.
African leaders like President Ouattara who say they are committed to global institutions that protect human rights, and who have seen first-hand how UN action can save lives, should not compromise their values in the face of superpower pressure. When Security Council members are asked to stand with victims of human rights abuses, Côte d’Ivoire should be among the first in line.
Mausi Segun is Africa director at Human Right Watch. She tweets @MausiSegun.