29 October 2012


China is experimenting with a more assertive style of diplomacy on international human rights issues and is reacting against a newly invigorated UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) following the Arab Spring. A new report, China and the International Human Rights System by Sonya Sceats and Shaun Breslin, focuses on this largely under-explored aspect of China's rise.

Against the backdrop of a more effective UNHRC and heightened concerns about its own domestic instability, China has decided to quit the backseat it has so far tended to occupy in this forum.

In ways that have not been seen since the UNHRC was established in 2006, China has moved centre stage as the spokesperson for a large grouping of states seeking to affirm the paramount responsibility of states to enforce public order in the face of internal unrest.

The lead author Sonya Sceats says:

'Beijing was clearly unnerved by the power transitions wrought by the Arab Spring and has chosen this moment to demonstrate its capacity to unite a large number of states behind its views about the responsibility of sovereign states to take robust action against public protests fuelled by social media.'

Beijing’s support for or acquiescence in various UN resolutions relating to Libya was welcomed internationally as a sign of a new willingness to allow enforcement action against states responsible for gross and systematic human rights violations.

But, as China’s hardline position on the crisis in Syria demonstrates, this shift was quickly reversed after NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya appeared to go beyond what the Security Council resolution authorised.

This report, timed to coincide with China standing down from the UNHRC at the end of this year after the maximum two consecutive terms, says if the leadership is able to steer China through its many domestic challenges, it is conceivable it will begin to adopt a less defensive attitude towards human rights, both at home and abroad. New possibilities may open up for working with Western states on international human rights issues.

But if China remains unstable, the government can be expected to assume an increasingly active role in building coalitions of like-minded states to reassert the power of the state in the face of popular discontent.


Notes to Editors

This report is based on original research conducted by Chatham House including an empirical study of China’s voting behaviour and other contributions at the UN Human Rights Council dating back to the establishment of the Council in 2006. It includes more than 50 interviews with diplomats from Beijing, Geneva, London, New York, and Washington DC, UN experts, academics, non-governmental organisations, as well as Chinese international law and international relations experts.

Read China and the International Human Rights System by Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin. The authors are available for interview via the Press Office.

Launch Event: China and the International Human Rights System
Monday 29 October 2012, 17:30 - 19:00

To register, please email [email protected]