Counting on China at UNHRC, yet?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Leave aside the unilateral US rebuke of the UNHRC for voting in ‘authoritarian States’ into the 47-member Council, elected on rotation of sorts for two-year terms, in the case of Sri Lanka, the low vote-count for China even while getting re-elected for a new three-year term, 2021-23 should be a cause for short, medium and long terms on ‘accountability issues’ that is still stuck at Geneva.

This owes to China obtaining the lowest vote-count of 139 for the five members elected for the new term from the five nations in the Asia-Pacific region. The figure is also lower than the 180 that China got in 2016, when it was elected to serve a staggered three-year term, implying that something is rotten in the State of China as far as its continued ability twist and turn smaller nation-States, almost at will

Colombo’s additional problem flows from a leaf from the 2016, when another of the nation’s P-5 veto-member friends in Russia, lost the poll by two votes. This time round, Russia is back with 156 votes, but the past defeat implies that the world does not go by muscle-power or money-power alone.

The latter is best proved by Saudi Arabia’s defeat in this round of elections, where all members of the UN General Assembly vote. The royal Gulf kingdom had polled a respectable 156 votes when it too contested the last time in 2016.

It was possibly, or obviously over the global protest on the brutal killing of dissenting journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi embassy in a foreign country. It is another matter what Uncle Sam would have said if Saudi Arabia too had won a UNHRC Council seat this time – whether US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have thrown all that criticism, which he supposedly threw at the election of China and Russia.

US ‘validated’

Secretary Pompeo criticised the UN for electing ‘authoritarian regimes’ like China, Russia and Cuba for the Human Rights Council adding that the US’ decision to withdraw from the Council has been ‘validated’. Translated, the US, a leading founding-member of the UN and a veto-power at that, is criticising the entire parent body, too, for electing Council members the way it thought it fir.

From among the Asian nations elected to the Council this time, apart from China, Pakistan and Nepal, Uzbekistan is the other nation that gets in. Whom does the US then want to replace China this time? By Saudi Arabia, after complaining publicly about the ‘Khashoggi killing’?

If the US was serious about it, it should have fielded candidates of its own, even without being an UNHRC member. That would have been embarrassing. Or, it could have canvassed for Saudi Arabia, which would have been worse after Khashoggi. So, what could have been the way out? Pompeo and the US seemed to have skipped a crucial stage, before criticising China, Russia and Cuba – nay rather criticised all UN member-nations, for electing them.

The same cannot be said of Germany-led Group of 39 nations that had criticised China ahead of the UN polls for UNHRC Council membership. Their statement said that they were “gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the recent developments in Hong Kong. And unlike the US, they are all still active members of the UNHRC. But then, given their greater legitimacy and pointed criticism of China, the question arises if the US (alone) can have the cake and eat it too. That is to say, retain the UNSC veto-seat, yet criticise the entire UN General Assembly about an affiliate, in which Washington lost its confidence some time ago.

Game afresh…

But given Sri Lanka’s current predicament on the UNHRC front, whatever the US says or not about China, Russia and Cuba being elected to the Council is immaterial just now. Colombo’s concern should be even more about the ability of ‘branded’ yet friendly members on the UNHRC, like Russia, China and Cuba, being able to swing House votes, in the crucial March 2021 session.

As is known, the March session is expected to discuss, debate and vote on High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s report on the progress made on the forgotten war-crimes probe resolution, co-authored by the predecessor Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government in Colombo. If none else, the successor Government of incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has forgotten it, and has also told the UNHRC to forget it.

The President’s maiden National Day speech on 4 February 2020 clearly indicated such a course, the course that incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, then post-war President, had adopted when the US first moved the resolution 2012. Today, the US is not a member, but trans-Atlantic cousin in the UK and others have been standing in for it.

It is unclear what the UNHRC, vote or no vote, could do when Sri Lanka has walked out of the earlier arrangement. If the original US resolution needed replacement by another moved by the likes of the UK and others, is it not logical that any change of Government in Colombo, too, could imply the need for the game to start afresh?

Proxy war

Of course, for the record, the US was not the prime signatory, any any sovereign member-nation of the UN and UNHRC, even outside of the 47 voting members, could move such resolutions. But it is clear that the US was the real power behind the resolution.

Even if this is only a matter of semantics, there is no going away from the reality that for Sri Lanka, the UNHRC votes will have to come only through the two powerful members on its side, namely, China and Russia, both vote-powers in the UNSC. Already, the UNHRC vote on Sri Lanka in the past had become a proxy war, or shadow-boxing between the US and the rest of the West and the China-Russia axis, where Beijing was more visible than the other, in putting together a healthy defence and a decent voting -number for Sri Lanka.

Now, with Colombo continuing with the boycott slogan on this particular issue and related resolutions, the March session is once again poised for further shadow-boxing, where on the other side, the UK, of course, will be half as powerful as the US. How the game will be played out will hence be decided by ‘outsiders’, rather ‘outsiders’ to the South Asian Region and he Indian Ocean littorals in these parts. But what is in store for Sri Lanka after the vote is even more of a question – and there are no clear answers just at present.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: