Most European governments regard human rights, including political and civil human rights, as unconditional. China, on the other hand, prefers to approach human rights as conditional on a country’s level of development. For many decades, the People’s Republic of China was either absent from the UN or (from 1971) it kept a low profile as a UN member country. In recent years, however, especially after Xi Jinping became China’s top leader in 2012, China’s approach has become more active and visible.
In 2017, in his speech at the UN’s Geneva office, Xi emphasised that he considers the UN to be at the core of the international system: “China is a founding member of the United Nations and the first country to put its signature on the UN Charter. China will firmly uphold the international system with the UN as its core, the basic norms governing international relations embodied in the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, the authority and stature of the UN, and its core role in international affairs.”
At the most fundamental level, China has the same interests as other members of the UN, which want to maintain the UN’s role as the most important international organisation. China’s more proactive attitude in the Human Rights Council (HRC) and its vigorous support not only for state sovereignty, but also for the right to development, pose new challenges to European governments. The recent withdrawal of the United States from the HRC – on the grounds that the HRC is heavily politicised and ineffective at promoting human rights – will most likely complicate the work of European governments in the Council.
Both the United States and China are known to be very active in engaging with other HRC members, both in Geneva and in their capitals, in advance of important decisions. Most other countries do not have a similar capacity for outreach. While China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally expressed regret about the US withdrawal from the HRC, an agency of the Chinese central government used the occasion to state that the American image as a human rights’ defender was now ‘on the verge of collapse’.
Even when European countries are still represented in the UN’s social-economic agencies, their core priorities clearly differ from China’s. For example, democratisation, rule of law and human rights form the core of Dutch priorities in the UNDP, while China prioritises infrastructure, disaster management and energy. The divergent approaches of prioritising basic human needs (by China) versus basic human rights (by European governments) are a recurrent issue not only in the UN’s development-finance institutions, but in the UN’s human rights and climate-action institutions.
Unfortunately, the potential for European and EU cooperation with China (when interests do align) and pushback (on matters where interests do not align) with the three agencies appears limited. The EU does not have any regular or formal coordination in the UNDP. Improved understanding among European governments should help to build political momentum for greater cooperation and coordination between the EU and its member states, and other countries with shared interests in this field.
‚A United Nations with Chinese Characteristics?‘ – Research Paper by Maaike Okano-Heijmans, Frans-Paul van der Putten and Louise van Schaik – Clingendael / The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.