To take liberties with an African proverb, when elephants fight, it’s better to be the forest than the grass. Today, the elephants challenging each other are China and the United States. Yet, despite their differences, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump have in common their dislike of any global effort to hold them accountable for their behavior, including on human rights. The question for governments that recognize the importance of human rights is whether to stand alone in their defence and risk being trampled like grass or to band together as a far sturdier forest.
The latest example of Xi and Trump trying to prevent scrutiny of their conduct is in their response to the coronavirus pandemic. Xi is determined to avoid a genuinely independent international investigation that would spotlight the devastating consequence of his government’s instinctive censorship; whether initially silencing the Wuhan doctors who tried to warn us or denying human-to-human transmission long after it was apparent.
Meanwhile, despite having ample warning, Trump downplayed the threat posed by the virus, wasting precious weeks as it spread across the United States. To change the subject, he has scapegoated the World Health Organization (WHO), which deserves criticism for its silence on Beijing’s censorship and obfuscation but can hardly be blamed for Trump’s irresponsibility once the scope of the pandemic threat was evident.
The pandemic is only the latest occasion for Xi and Trump to attack international oversight. The Chinese government is increasingly using strong-armed tactics to try to silence any criticism of its human rights record and to undermine the United Nations (UN) human rights institutions that might call it to account. Most recently, Beijing imposed trade sanctions on Australia in what appeared to be retaliation for its having sought an independent investigation of the coronavirus outbreak. Beijing is leaning on recipients of the trillion dollars’ worth of loans doled out as part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative to support the Chinese government’s anti-rights agenda.
At the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council, the Chinese government routinely opposes initiatives to defend human rights in other countries, for fear that the precedent might come back to haunt it. Even horrors such as the Syrian government’s unlawful attacks on hospitals and schools or Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya have not persuaded Beijing to support UN initiatives.
Meanwhile, Trump directed the US government to abandon its coveted seat on the UN Human Rights Council because of its criticisms of Israel. His administration revoked the visa of the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda and has threatened further retaliation if she continues to pursue investigations of US interrogators accused of torturing detainees in Afghanistan and Israeli authorities implicated in the expansion of the illegal West Bank settlements. Just as the Chinese government is trying to elevate economic development over the requirements of international human rights law, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo has created a Commission on Unalienable Rights with the apparent aim of picking and choosing among international human rights standards according to US government preferences.
Of course, even under Trump, the US government at times defends human rights; opposing the use of chemical weapons in Syria, pressing to ease Nicolás Maduro’s repressive rule in Venezuela, and spotlighting the Chinese government’s detention of as many as one million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.
But this occasional defense seems unprincipled while Trump embraces friendly autocrats, such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman.
Governments that defend human rights abroad are all that stand between the hard-won achievements of recent decades and the efforts of these two global powers to undermine them. Standing alone, they have little capacity to push back. The trade lever and other economic pressure are often too great to resist individually. Yet, when they do act together, retaliation is difficult; neither Washington nor Beijing can afford to cut off the entire world.
For example, in 2019 some two dozen governments joined together twice at the United Nations to condemn the Chinese government’s mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang. The joint statement put the Chinese government on the defensive, leading it to announce that it would close certain “camps” because “all the students had graduated.” A similar collective effort yielded a World Health Assembly resolution authorizing an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” into the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
More such collective action is needed; in defense of the ICC, the UN Human Rights Council, the WHO, persecuted people around the world, and the very system to defend human rights. Acting alone, rights-promoting governments face a dangerous future as the superpowers’ trampling ground. Standing together, they have the potential to serve as the deeply rooted foundation of the global human rights system.