UN logoUN member states will vote on May 9 to decide which countries should sit on the new UN Human Rights Council. China has announced it will stand for election, but does it deserve a seat at the table?

On 27 March 2006, the United Nations closed the doors on its annual Human Rights Commission for the last time. The much maligned Commission will now make way for a new Human Rights Council that, while not taking the form that NGOs and some governments had hoped for, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) believes that the new Council has real potential to be a major tool in the struggle for universal human rights. Nonetheless, ICT has genuine concerns, specifically related to China’s potential membership on the Council.

The new Council will seat 47 members of the UN’s 191 member states. All candidates must stand for election on 9 May 2006 and obtain at least 96 votes. This competitive race for seats on the Council ensures that countries who wish to stand for election must document their commitment to human rights and justify a seat on the Council to the other UN members. Already, some member states have produced pledges as to how they intend to use their time on the Council if elected.

Other distinctions between the Commission and the Council are that the Council will report directly to the UN General Assembly, and convene on at least three occasions per year and all Council members will be the subject to a Universal Review mechanism, where a country’s human rights record will be thoroughly scrutinized.

These are very real improvements but the efficacy of the Council will only be seen once it begins its work. ICT is all too aware that the output of the Council will primarily serve the interests of its membership, and not necessarily the peoples under its dominion. If member states use the Council for its proper purpose then it can improve the lives of millions, but if they politicize the Council as they did with the Commission over the past decade, without being held accountable for their actions, then the Council will fail where the Commission failed. Speaking on the Council’s improvements, Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN, stated “How effective they are depends, of course, on how seriously the U.N. membership takes them.”

China, which has announced it will stand for election, has a poor record of taking the UN ?seriously’ on matters of human rights and Chinese intransigence was a one of the factors in the demise of the Commission. ICT and other NGOs, as well as governments, have consistently documented human rights abuses against Tibetans under Chinese rule and the UN has frequently acted upon these reports, calling on China to cooperate with the UN or halt the violations. Yet time and again China has simply ignored the most senior UN officials.

In 2002 and 2005 the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, the highest human rights post in the UN, called on China to allow independent access to the young Tibetan Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. This boy was taken from his home in Tibet by Chinese officials in 1995 at the age of six and has not been seen since. But China has refused access. Likewise, in late 2005 the UN’s expert on Torture visited China and Tibet after over 10 years of wrangling over the character of the visit. On the UN expert’s arrival in Beijing there was much fanfare from the Chinese government – yet his report on the use of torture in China, which documents serious human rights violations against Tibetans, has been dismissed by China.

Even though the Chinese government has expressed its desire for a seat in the new council, it has not presented a pledge of its commitment to basic human rights as so many other candidates have. If China wishes to show the world that it is a responsible actor within the UN, it must have the courage to openly express its intentions. That is why the International Campaign for Tibet is calling on China to publicly pledge its commitment to human rights and its intention to abide by the spirit and work of the Council. ICT also calls on the Chinese government to publicly pledge how it will implement the recommendations made by the UN to China, many of which remain unimplemented, should China win a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

The UN has called on member states to vote only for those candidates that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” ICT fully supports this position and calls on all other UN member states to recognize China’s poor human rights record and to closely scrutinize China’s candidacy for election to the UN Human Rights Council. In this pivotal period for the future work of the Council, states must ensure that China genuinely complies with the spirit and rules of the Council and that China is genuinely committed to meet the recommendations the UN has previously made to the Chinese government.

In a letter to the Chinese government and China’s Missions to the UN, ICT calls on the Chinese government to:

  • Remove all obstacles to China’s ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • Commit to a sincere cooperation with the UN’s experts, including prompt and full responses to all requests for information and uninhibited access to the country
  • Commit to the implementation of recommendations made by UN experts. In particular the recommendation made by the Committee for the Rights of the Child (2005) that China allow access to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, and to fully implement the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur on Torture (2006) to release all political prisoners and abolish all political crimes.
  • Submit to the Universal Periodic Review without pre-conditions
  • Acknowledge the crucial role that NGOs play in the work of the Council.

The International Campaign for Tibet will closely monitor the election of the new members of the Human Rights Council. It will also continue to play an active role in highlighting the human rights situation in Tibet at the new Council. The challenge for the new Council, and China, is to show by action that human rights are the fundamental and universal rights of all peoples, including the Tibetans, irrespective of the composition of the membership or China’s political status.