China, Poverty and the UN’s Curious Stance on Human Rights

The United Nations' Human Rights Council kicked off a

to discuss the impact of the financial crisis on the poor Friday. That same day, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in China, which recently received a rather friendly

from the world's leading rights body.

Why is the HRC addressing the concerns of the poor when it apparently fails to handle its own purview?

The council replaced the beleaguered Commission on Human Rights nearly three years ago. After its most recent 16-country review, the HRC has now reviewed one-third of the U.N.'s 192 member states. Among those reviews, that of China stands out.

Amnesty International has called China the "world's leading executioner," and the authoritarian government is known for jailing its citizens without trial, censoring its people and harshly quelling rebellious sentiment in Tibet and among the Muslim Uighurs.

Yet during the review, many developing countries commended China as an example of progress and criticized Western countries for "politicizing" the issues. Egypt lauded the Hu Jintao regime and Iran championed Beijing's "strong commitment to human rights." Cuba urged China to remain firm against "self-styled human rights defenders." Gabon, Sudan and Zimbabwe praised China for giving them financial aid, and failed to mention human rights.

"What we saw during the China review was a wide range of views expressed on several human rights issues - economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights," Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi, Nigerian ambassador to the U.N. and current president of the HRC, told Devex. "This is significant!"

Like the HRC, Hilary Clinton pushed human rights to the sidelines during her visit to Beijing over the weekend, saying human rights issues "should not be allowed to interfere" with common interests. She could have capitalized on the buzz surrounding "Charter 08," an online petition denouncing the Chinese government for its human rights abuses that has been signed by more than 8,000 Chinese citizens. But Clinton instead focused on climate change and financial crisis cooperation.

Perhaps it's understandable for the U.S. secretary of state to go soft on China - she has a relationship to manage. The HRC, on the other hand, has a job to do. Despite human rights abuses all around, the council issued a draft resolution Monday calling on nations to protect those put most at risk during the ongoing financial downturn.

"The hope of this session is to send out a strong message that human rights should not be overlooked or drowned out by the current financial crisis," said Uhomoibhi. "The international community must take into account the human rights dimension of the economic crises when implementing measures to address its effects."

Coming two days after the Hu Jintao government gagged dozens of human rights advocates to keep them quiet during Clinton's visit, the real message is that human rights-abusing governments can act with impunity.

About the author

  • David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.