Autocrats’ sharp power fails to curb activists’ U.N. role


An alliance of authoritarian states lost a bid on Friday to weaken a U.N. resolution upholding civil society activists’ role in highlighting human rights violations, according to campaigners.

The United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling on all states to protect civil society groups from threats and intimidation, and prosecute reprisals against them, Reuters reports:

Chile presented the resolution text on behalf of more than 50 countries on the final day of a three-week session. Amendments proposed by China, Pakistan and Russia – declaring that civil society groups must respect “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states” and that their funding must be “legal and transparent” – were soundly defeated.

“China and Russia are often the least tolerant of civil society at home. They are now seeking to introduce similar restrictions at the international level,” John Fisher of Human Rights Watch told Reuters. Their attempts to place national sovereignty above international human rights law “would turn guarantees of peaceful assembly and association on their heads”, he said.

“These amendments were a swing and a miss for China and its allies on the Council,” said Sarah Brooks of the International Service for Human Rights.

“Their efforts to limit civil society’s independence and shut down civil society voices were rebuffed by a strong message – from member states across the globe – about the importance of keeping defenders’ voices at the table,” she said.

At the current session, China tried unsuccessfully to block the accreditation of Uighur activist Dolkun Isa (above), while Beijing’s delegation publicly challenged activists speaking on behalf of Uighur and Tibetan ethnic minorities, U.N. sources said.

The episode is further evidence of authoritarian states’ determination to employ what a recent National Endowment for Democracy report called “sharp power” in order to erode international norms, analysts suggest.

If the US retreats, China will reshape global norms, analyst Hal Brands writes for Bloomberg:

Democracy and human rights became widespread over the course of the late 20th and early 21st centuries for any number of reasons, having to do with socioeconomic changes, shifts in the doctrine and teachings of the Catholic Church, and other factors. Yet that ascendancy surely would not have been as powerful had not the next hegemon, the U.S., itself been a democracy that was frequently — albeit inconsistently and often selfishly — willing to exert its influence to restrain authoritarian aggressors and promote democratic change.

The idea that a post-American world will still be a world rooted in American norms represents a dubious gamble of epic proportions,” adds Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and author of “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.” “It is far more likely that a different leading power, particularly a non-democratic power, would promote a different set of norms more to its liking.”

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