Breaking the western monopoly of discourse in human rights issues


As China's role as a major power in international affairs is growing, the Chinese government is becoming more active and more influential in the United Nations (UN). This is likely to have - or, in the eyes of some, already has - a significant impact on the UN's (future) functioning. Growing Chinese influence is important for all UN members, and particularly so for Western countries, including the Netherlands, which strives to maintain and strengthen the international legal order as a principal foreign policy aim.

This report by Maaike Okano-Heijmans and Frans-Paul van der Putten, with contributions from Etienne Béchard, Louise van Schaik and Vishwesh Sundar, aims to provide a better understanding of the process currently underway. It does so, first, by analysing how and in which direction China's involvement in the UN is evolving. Next, the discussion turns to the question of how China's growing involvement is relevant to the setting and the developing of norms and standards within the UN. Finally, the authors explore where European countries and China have common interests, and where their interests are conflicting through presenting three case studies in three thematic areas, namely human rights, development finance and climate change.

The two main UN bodies responsible for human rights are the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Human Rights Council (HRC). The OHCHR is part of the UN Secretariat and answers to the UN Secretary-General, while the HRC is an inter-governmental body that reports to the General Assembly. The ability of China to exert influence within the OHCHR organisation is limited. The current High Commissioner is Jordanian, and the two top officials under him are Australian and Croatian. At the end of 2013, there were only four Chinese nationals out of 503 regular OHCHR staff in the professional or higher category.

Chapter in the Clingendael Report 'A United Nations with Chinese Characteristics'. Click on the image below to go to the report.