United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is responsible for advancing the UN’s three “pillar” issues: development, peace and security, and human rights. But on his visit to Beijing last weekend, there was no sign that the human rights pillar was part of his bilateral discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
When meeting with Xi, Guterres publicly congratulated the Chinese leader on “his recent re-election” – despite the fact that Xi has by no stretch of any democratic standard ever been “elected” – and made no mention of Xi’s recent elimination of presidential term limits.
Guterres went on to “express appreciation for the President’s support to the work of the United Nations,” despite the Chinese government’s increasing harassment of Chinese activists who want to engage the UN system, its unwillingness to allow visits by some UN human rights investigators despite longstanding requests, and its direct intimidation of several UN experts. Untempered praise for Xi’s cooperation with the UN rings hollow when his government has done nothing to hold anyone accountable for the death of Cao Shunli, an activist who died in custody after she was detained in 2013 while en route to Geneva for a training about UN human rights mechanisms.
Guterres did not publicly mention the emblematic case of Liu Xia, an artist and the widow of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo; she has been held under house arrest since his death in July 2017.
How can people across China have any confidence that the UN is generally concerned about the rights violations they suffer – from arbitrary detention to torture to a lack of political rights – when the UN’s most senior diplomat doesn’t speak out on these issues while meeting with the country’s leader?
The credibility of the United Nations depends in part on its willingness to vigorously and publicly challenge human rights violations committed by its most powerful members. In an August 2017 letter to Human Rights Watch, Guterres asserted his commitment to public and private diplomacy, and “underscored that the protection and promotion of human rights is the most important tool for prevention.” Sadly, Guterres did embattled human rights activists across China – and rights advocates within the UN – little good by passing up this opportunity to demonstrate those commitments.