On April 25, Tibetans celebrated the 31st birthday of the Panchen Lama. He was kidnapped by China in 1995 at the tender age of six — making him the youngest political prisoner in the world.
The appointment of China to the Consultative Group of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is a harsh reminder to many victims of human rights violations, such as the Tibetans, of the uphill battle in their quest for justice and freedom.
Ideally, the UNHRC is for the victims of human rights violations and holds the perpetrators accountable for their crimes. However, China’s appointment to the consultation group, which is responsible for selecting the council’s human rights investigators who will monitor crucial areas such as freedom of speech, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and health, is highly demoralizing for victims of human rights abuses.
The record of the one-party state in China has always been dismal. It has become even more repressive with the ascendance of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), with his ideological campaign against freedom of thought and expression, human rights, democracy and rule of law launched in 2013, and repressions such as the 709 Crackdown against Chinese human rights lawyers and other dissidents — which also extended to Hong Kong, targeting journalists, democrats and booksellers.
Likewise, the human rights situation in Tibet and Xinjiang continues to deteriorate, as China pushes its assimilationist campaign more aggressively, which is tantamount to a cultural genocide. One does not need to go back to the early days of Chinese military occupation of these territories to understand the rampant breaches of the fundamental rights of Tibetans and Uighurs.
If the trail of Chen Quanguo (陳全國) is traced from his time as Chinese Communist Party secretary of Tibet from 2011 to 2016, to his current post as Xinjiang secretary, there is enough blood to make one sick to the core.
As Beijing’s hitman, Chen implemented a despotic policy in Tibet with an amalgamation of brute force, community policing and high-tech surveillance to maintain political stability and promote Sinicization. His “success” in Tibet as a ruthless implementer of Beijing’s will earned him Xi’s confidence and he was posted to Xinjiang to implement the same security architecture.
The all-out offensive unleashed on the Uighurs and their culture is chillingly brutal — ripping families apart and caging millions of people in Nazi-style camps for indoctrination and forced labor. The discriminatory restrictions imposed on movement; freedom of speech and assembly; cultural practices, including religion; language; and food have created apartheid societies in Tibet and Xinjiang under a colonial Chinese police state.
Arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and suppression of free speech are some of the favorite tools used by Beijing to perpetuate its power in China, and fortify its colonial rule in Tibet and Xinjiang. To have the same regime in a world body responsible for selecting special rapporteurs who will oversee cases of human rights violations such as enforced disappearances is like putting a pedophile in charge of an orphanage.
The appointment of China to the council’s panel is not only flawed practically, but morally discouraging for millions of people who dream and fight for a freer, and more just and dignified life.
Although the UNHRC cannot punish powerful states like China, as its resolutions and recommendations are non-binding, it must at least have room to call a spade a spade. However, having authoritarian regimes like China holding office in the council dismantles even the semblance of an international justice system that can help people affected by human rights violations. It is imperative that the UNHRC is credible in the eyes of such people.
It is in the interests of perpetrators of human rights abuses that the credibility of international norms, regulations and institutions responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights be undermined. This is precisely why rights abusers like China and Saudi Arabia often seek to be on the council. Their objective is not to improve the standards of human rights, but to whitewash or evade their crimes against humanity by bending human rights norms and regulations in their favor.
Beijing has persistently pushed its version of human rights — which overemphasizes the state over society, economic growth over democracy, and rule by law over rule of law. China’s aim is to create a human rights regime that is compatible with its political system.
However, it would be unfair to blame only an authoritarian regime for weakening the council as a defender of human rights. The unceremonious withdrawal in 2018 of the US from the UNHRC by US President Donald Trump’s administration on the grounds that the council has unqualified members, such as China, and that it is biased against Israel, a US ally, is equally depressing. It was a big blow to the organization.
To leave the council as a reaction to its criticism of Israel’s right abuses against the Palestinians is not only hypocritical, but ridiculous, and the absence of the US at the council’s meetings and deliberations on human rights further empowers persistent rights violators such as China, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It will make the toothless council also voiceless.
Moreover, the increasing influence of human rights violators can turn the organization upside down, thereby changing its role and responsibility from being the defender of human rights to the defender of human rights abusers.
That is the last thing the world should opt for if there must be some hope for the millions of victims of human rights abuses, like Tibet’s Panchen Lama, whose status and whereabouts are still shrouded in darkness.
While Tibetans’ fight for the freedom of their beloved Lama has been long and arduous, they have never given up and hopefully they will find the sun behind the dark clouds.
Palden Sonam is a researcher in the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies’ China Research Programme in New Delhi, India.
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