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The United Nations, Human Rights, and American Disengagement

March 28, 2018

This article was originally posted on the Ethics & International Affairs blog on March 28, 2018.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch makes the case that, at the United Nations, "China and Russia Score Win in War on Human Rights." The gist of the piece is that, as the United States has disengaged, Russia and China have moved to fill the vacuum. What is interesting is that they are not seeking to dismantle the liberal order—a theme discussed and debated in the current issue of Ethics & International Affairs–but reshape it more to their liking and preferences.

Lynch relates two incidents: the dismantling of an office within the UN secretary-general’s staff designed to monitor how United Nations agencies and programs were advancing human rights, and the successful lobbying by Russia and China to get a majority of the members of the United Nations Security Council to oppose a briefing by Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, on violations by the Syrian government.

China and Russia play on growing resentments among rising powers that Western commitment to human rights and democracy is selective; deployed only when it serves their geopolitical or geo-economic interests, and ignored when national interests are threatened. In turn, the powers of the Global South and East remain committed to defending the principle of state sovereignty, and to focus international cooperation on more pragmatic issues. Commenting on these developments, Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations notes: "China is the real playmaker here. It has cleverly combined positive messaging over climate change and development with an increasingly uncompromising approach to limiting human rights. It can get away with this because a lot of diplomats view Chinese engagement at the [United Nations] as insurance against Trump walking away [from multilateralism]."

What is interesting is the conclusion to the story—that to support the office, Secretary-General António Guterres may need to turn to direct funding from sympathetic countries, starting with the Scandinavians. If this occurs, this may evidence a trend identified by Andrew Michta for European states to do more to shore up the liberal order. Nevertheless, as G. John Ikenberry and Shiping Tang note, "After seventy years at the top of the global political and economic hierarchy, the United States is finding its hold on leadership weakening. In the meantime, a variety of non-Western developing states—China first among them—are gaining ground and seeking to influence global rules and institutions. The global distribution of power is shifting and the American-led international order forged in the twentieth century is in transition."

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