Tibet and China at the UN: Reflections on UN Soft Power
BU’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) Team Tibet has had ample opportunity to contemplate China’s place within the United Nations human rights system in our work on Tibetan issues. For several years now, the IHRC has partnered with the Tibet Justice Center (TJC), a member of the Tibet Advocacy Coalition (TAC), to advocate for the human rights of Tibetans and to bring an end to China’s severe and systemic violations of such rights, with the long-term goal of advancing Tibetans’ right to self-determination.
The IHRC works with the TJC to compile reports, prepare briefings and engage in advocacy through various UN mechanisms on issues prioritized by the TAC. The IHRC’s first project this year is an update of the Human Rights Action Plan for Tibet (HRAP-T) to ensure the document reflects the UN human rights mechanisms’ latest reviews of and recommendations for China in response to recent human rights violations committed against Tibetans by the Chinese government. The HRAP-T is a tool TAC first issued in 2014 to help states, civil society organizations, and citizens alike to track China’s compliance with its international human rights obligations as applied to Tibet.
In updating the HRAP-T, the IHRC cannot contact Tibetans in Tibet to directly discuss their experiences and ideas of change or to assess the extent to which China has implemented recommendations relevant to Tibet. Tibetans within Tibet have limited external communication and what means of communication are available, are monitored by China. We understand that in this situation, while best practices would encourage us to work directly with the people we seek to assist, such interaction would likely endanger our sources given the tight surveillance by Chinese authorities.
Chinese authorities restrict foreigners’ access to Tibet and Tibetans’ freedom of speech and movement, justifying these limitations and surveillance on Tibetans as protection from untoward interference and resistance against the UN’s Western-influenced ordering of values and human rights priorities. In such context, the UN human rights mechanisms offer Tibetans, often Tibetans in exile, the opportunity to speak up on behalf of Tibetans in Tibet within an international institution and in front of major actors like Special Rapporteurs and potentially sympathetic state representatives, thus decreasing the marginalization and silencing China imposes.
Given that the TJC and the IHRC utilize UN human rights mechanisms to point out the violations China commits against Tibetans, it is pertinent to consider the method and extent of the mechanisms’ clout. Upholding human rights obligations through the UN necessitates the compliance of the state allegedly violating its obligations with the edicts of that international body. UN human rights mechanisms do not possess inherent hard power. Rather, international human rights obligations are upheld through soft power. Soft power is a means of inspiring or inciting a certain outcome or way of acting by making others want what the directing actor wants. The directing actor obtains compliance with their point of view or desired path of action because of its cultural or ideological appeal to other actors. Soft power is intangible and co-optive, in contrast to the use of force that typically backs hard power.
UN human rights mechanisms possess authority to the extent that other states buy into the institution and its ideas as attractive and, to some degree, in line with their desires. To some extent, the value of the UN’s soft power is in what it can persuade states not to do. To effectively safeguard rights, then, the UN must embody and uphold shared goals and values which states respect or at least want to be seen as respecting to maintain acceptance within the international community.
The UN’s ability to uphold human rights obligations also hinges on the susceptibility of a state to this particular form of soft power and affinity toward the worldview the UN represents. UN human rights mechanisms, like other UN entities, grew from and continue to operate under largely Western, Eurocentric ideas rooted in Enlightenment thinking, which privilege individual political and civil rights and, as of late, temper the drive to development with environmental concerns. China may be a state less susceptible to these ways of thinking and ordering of priorities and, therefore, soft power mechanisms like those the IHRC and TJC rely on in supporting the human rights of Tibetans against Chinese abuses may be less effective compared to states that are more closely aligned with UN’s outlook.
China’s value ordering of human rights influences this; where the Western-influenced UN prioritizes individual civil and political rights, China is restrictive of civil and political rights, emphasizing economic rights and stability, and a harmonious, if seemingly homogeneous, society by elevating Han Chinese culture over minority group cultures. China’s resistance to the pull of institutional soft power influenced by Western cultural mores exists in tension with its desire to appear in compliance for acceptance by the international community. As a result, China is an active participant in UN bodies, pursuing a different approach to human rights which, in many ways, conflicts with the Western approach. China embraces a value ordering of rights that prioritizes cultural homogeneity and economic development contrary to the individual and cultural rights promoted to China through UN human rights mechanisms. China is not a peripheral power within the UN; China’s continued place on the UN Security Council indicates its commitment to the legitimacy of the UN.
China’s emphasis on economic, social, and cultural rights clearly does not extend to the rights of Tibetans in Tibet. Many of the updates made by the IHRC to the Human Rights Action Plan for Tibet show that the Chinese government increasingly restricts and condemns Tibetan cultural and religious practices, language, and nomadic ways of life, while punishing through surveillance, detention, and physical harm those who protest. The contrast is ironic: China’s rhetoric calls for respect for cultural and social freedoms while in reality the state suppresses social and cultural practices it does not approve of. While the UN cannot force China to do an about-face in state rhetoric or practice, neither are its human rights mechanisms designed to do so. The co-optive power of UN human rights mechanisms lies in aligning interests with a certain worldview, which, as established, China does not whole-heartedly embrace. Yet, there is room to maneuver for the human rights advocate; China’s desires to maintain a position of power within the UN necessitates that the state remain engaged and receptive. Furthermore, the UN human rights mechanisms offer a forum where Tibetans may raise their own voices, supported by NGOs and other states as needed. This is another important part of our work, continuing to call attention to the abuses perpetrated by China against Tibetans to keep the issue in the eyes of the international community. The more the issue is brought up at the UN, the greater pressure that may be exerted over China to bring about change for Tibetans. While the soft power of UN human rights mechanisms lies in co-opting state interests to align with a certain worldview, given China’s resistance to this outlook, its compliance may be brought about by co-opting China’s interests in the sense of avoiding negative press. China may comply out of a desire to not look bad rather than to move toward achievement of a set of shared human rights goals.
This complexity is a serious consideration that we at the IHRC bear in the back of our minds. While we believe in the work we do, we are cognizant of China’s tendency to resist the power of attraction of UN human rights mechanisms and are wary that the Tibetan human rights we focus on in the HRAP-T, including cultural rights, are not at the top of China’s own value-ordering of rights. One document is unlikely to bring about radical change, but persistent advocacy over time, holding these human rights abuses to the light, can erode resistance.
Author bio: Isabella Lefante is in her second year at Boston University School of Law and participates in the International Human Rights Clinic. She received a Master of Arts in International Relations and Social Anthropology from the University of St Andrews. Her work thus far has been in government, in the executive and legislative branches, and civil rights. After the completion of her J.D., she plans to pursue work in international law and public policy.