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'Walking a fine line': Ireland, China and the UN Security Council

How can a non-permanent member of the Security Council like Ireland ensure that human rights remain at the heart of the Council’s agenda?

WHEN IRELAND WAS seeking election to the UN Security Council (UNSC), human rights were a key component of the campaign.

But all too often internal dynamics, arcane procedures and power asymmetries of the Security Council hinder its capacity to take effective action. 

Now that Ireland sits on the UN’s ‘top table’, it has a responsibility to call out and condemn human rights abuses as and when they occur globally. 

So, what can Ireland do to make progress on its campaign promises to champion human rights during its two-year term on the Council? This issue is thrown into the spotlight when it comes to China.

At a high-level United Nations virtual meeting on China’s Xinjiang region earlier this month, UN member states clashed with China over its treatment of the autonomous region’s Uighur Muslim population. Moreover, Human Rights Watch has condemned the abuses as “crimes against humanity”, which rank among the gravest of human rights abuses under international law.

Despite China’s dismal human rights record in Xinjiang, the hostility of the Trump administration towards the UN system created a void in rhetorical leadership on human rights issues.

In recent years, China has increasingly sought to exploit this leadership vacuum, both to avoid scrutiny of its own human rights record and to undermine the UN human rights system as a whole, including at the Security Council, which has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. 

As one of five permanent members of the Security Council, China holds veto power (alongside the US, UK, France, and Russia). This allows permanent members to block UNSC resolutions they do not agree with and can be a significant barrier to achieving progress on issues like human rights.

China has increasingly used the veto to block draft resolutions and action on human rights abuses as part of a broader strategy to shift the narrative away from a focus on individual human rights to one which emphasises the sovereign rights of states to pursue their national interests.

This shift threatens the ability of the UN Security Council to take action when grave human rights crises inevitably emerge around the globe. 

un-security-council-somalia-meeting-chinese-envoy Ambassador Zhang Jun, China's permanent representative to the United Nations since 2019. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Barriers to engagement 

Despite widespread international condemnation of China’s persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang, Ireland has not yet used its Security Council membership to overtly confront China over its human rights record.

It did, however, sign a joint letter with 38 other UN member countries in October 2020 at the UN General Assembly, which expressed grave concern about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and developments in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, the government has been criticised for refraining from direct criticism of China so as not to jeopardise trade relations.  

While fear over trade sanctions can inhibit some countries from criticising China’s human rights record, Ireland is arguably in a unique position to make an impact, both as a member of the Security Council and as a country that does not pose a direct threat to China’s national interests.

Yet beyond the veto and the threat of trade sanctions, there are three further significant barriers to effectively engaging China on human rights at the Security Council.

First of all, China effectively deploys the rhetoric of moral equivalence to distort the narrative on human rights.

When confronted with criticism of its human rights record, China often points out that Western states lack the moral authority to criticise China given their own failures.

To take a recent example, the refusal of the US to agree to a joint Security Council statement condemning the recent violence in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, was met with a tweet from the Chinese Foreign Ministry which asked: “Is this the human rights US touts around when Palestinian people suffer, or is it an excuse to serve US self-interest?”

Secondly, opportunities to engage China on human rights within the formal parameters of the Security Council are limited at best.

The first and only time human rights was discussed as a thematic issue at the UNSC was in April 2017. China vehemently pushes back against the discussion of human rights at the Security Council and regularly objects to references to human rights in draft resolutions and the mandates of UN Peacekeeping Missions.

It argues that such discussions should be confined to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Unsurprisingly, any mention of Xinjiang or Uighurs is often met with an outright refusal to engage.

Finally, China has effectively cultivated cross-regional alliances with UN member states, which has served to bolster its narrative on human rights at the UN Security Council.

It has successfully positioned itself as an ally of African states by leveraging its strong financial and economic ties with African countries. In addition, China rarely if ever criticises egregious human rights abuses when they occur in African countries; preferring instead to focus on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states and the assertion that socio-economic development constitutes the ultimate human right.

As a result, China can usually count on the support of the three rotating African seats on the Security Council.

So what can Ireland do? 

un-security-council-non-permanent-members Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, permanent representative of Ireland to the United Nations since 2017. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

From Ireland’s perspective, making a meaningful impact on human rights at the Security Council will require walking a fine line between calling out human rights abuses in China and pursuing creative diplomatic solutions, given China’s tendency to disengage entirely when criticised openly on its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Germany’s decision to criticise China’s human rights record very openly at the Security Council during its most recent term led to a rapid deterioration of relations, which made co-operation virtually impossible in other important areas. 

While passionate set-piece speeches which castigate China for its human rights record can serve an important role in spotlighting ongoing violations of human rights in Xinjiang and elsewhere, there is a strong case to be made that an approach which prioritises the inclusion and conservation of existing human rights language in Security Council resolutions and Peacekeeping Mission mandates, is a more effective way of combatting China’s gradual erosion of human rights norms at the UN Security Council. 

During its Presidency of the Security Council in September 2021, Ireland will also have the opportunity to shape the Council’s official agenda in line with its main priorities by organising a number of high-level signature events.

The question remains whether holding a high-level debate on human rights during its Presidency is the most effective way of making a meaningful impact, given the strong likelihood that China would simply use the occasion to further undermine the place of human rights at the Security Council.

Alternatively, Ireland could aim to circumvent these efforts by focusing on creative diplomatic strategies, such as raising awareness of human rights issues at so-called “Arria formula” meetings and pursuing quiet diplomacy.

(Arria-formula meetings are informal meetings convened at the initiative of a member of the Security Council, which, unlike formal Council meetings, do not require the approval of every Security Council member and allow for greater participation of civil society.)

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Quiet diplomacy, which would prioritise diplomatic outreach over naming and shaming China on its human rights record, would avoid incurring the wrath of China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats and arguably offer better chances of achieving tangible progress.

Striking a balance  

With China’s turn as rotating President of the UN Security Council ending last month, Ireland will be gearing up for its own Presidency this September. 

Ireland could choose to use its voice on the Security Council to call out human rights abuses in Xinjiang and at every possible opportunity and risk losing China’s valuable support on other priorities. On the other hand, Ireland could seek to focus its efforts on creative diplomacy, and build on what Minister Coveney has referred to as a “credible process”, so as to avoid outright alienation from China while making concrete gains on human rights.

The extent to which Ireland can deliver upon campaign promises of championing human rights at the Security Council, will depend on balancing strong moral leadership with creative diplomatic solutions and strategic engagement with China.

Ross Fitzpatrick is a researcher at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) specialising in foreign policy and human rights.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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