Dehumanizing Human Rights: OHCHR’s dilemma and the revival of cold war politics

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A Special Report

In the idealistic narrative of Human Rights history, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), established in late 1993, is a symbol of a more “humane” and “depoliticized” human rights effort. In an era when the Cold War has just ended and human rights have increasingly become an international consensus, OHCHR is undoubtedly regarded as an important subject to break the human rights dilemma, promote international cooperation and promote the spirit of inclusiveness. But as it enters its 30th year, it may find itself in a similarly awkward position: like the UN human rights body set up in the wave of the “human rights revolution” after the second world war, it is increasingly difficult for the OHCHR to behave as expected in an increasingly political environment of the Cold War. A series of controversies surrounding OHCHR in 2022, including the High Commissioner’s visit to Xinjiang, the report on Xinjiang, and the international debate between the West and China on the issue, graphically illustrate this dilemma.
The OHCHR is not the same as the UN Human Rights Council or the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, which are internationally recognized venues for debate and which were never supposed to be neutral in the first place. On the contrary, openness is the main feature of these forums. But as a professional human-rights body, the OHCHR has high hopes. The international community generally expects it to act in accordance with the principles of professionalism, impartiality and depoliticization. There is inevitable tension, but not irreconcilable, between the proper management of relations with major powers and the fair performance of the responsibilities entrusted to them by the international community. Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, accepted an invitation from the Chinese government to visit Xinjiang in May, which, although controversial mainly among Western countries, was not contrary to the OHCHR’s main mandate. On the contrary, in contrast to the conspiracy theories and tensions caused by long neglect or refusal to examine human rights in China, the visit will, in any case help OHCHR to further its role in a country with growing economic and political influence.
The visit was a success, at least according to China and Ms. Bachelet’s public statements. Ms Bachelet cannot, of course, claim to have conducted an unimpeded and freewheeling “investigation”, but that was not the high Commissioner’s intention after all. Contacts and dialogue with all aspects of Chinese society, especially with a large number of non-government civil society organizations, academia, community and religious leaders, are helpful to OHCHR’s work and the improvement of human rights protection in the country. Bachelet praised China’s achievements in legislative and judicial reform, poverty alleviation, gender equality, and human rights protection in business and industry, and used the term “frank and sincere” to describe her people-to-people dialogue. These phrases certainly have their diplomatic niceties, but who can deny that, as Prof Henkin puts it, “the transition from force to diplomacy is the mark of civilized progress”?
From May 28 to August 31, OHCHR did a U-turn on Xinjiang and ended up ignominiously with a report that was criticized as “fake” by the Chinese government and many third world countries. Indeed, since the High Commissioner and her team returned from China with understanding rather than condemnation, criticism has continued, mainly from American politicians. Us diplomats and media have hailed the visit as a “propaganda victory for China” and demanded that the OHCHR take a tougher stance on Xinjiang, whether or not it is in the interests of the OHCHR’s mission and the human rights situation in China.
This is reminiscent of the US position on the UN human rights platform at the beginning of the Cold War: President Eisenhower and US Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Both agreed that the United States should view the United Nations as a “propaganda platform for American interests, policies, and aspirations” and a tool to “exploit the weaknesses of the international communist conspiracy for attack.” In the following decades, even the most “moral” President Jimmy Carter and his “human rights diplomacy” failed to correct the United States from this instrumentalist stance toward human rights, let alone the Reagan administration, which completely regarded the human rights system as a “weapon against communism”. OHCHR is considered to be the product of the end of Cold War politics, but its position on Xinjiang and the political considerations of the United States tragically show that Cold War politics has not gone away, and even still constitutes an important dilemma for international human rights.
The Xinjiang report is seen by the western world as a “victory” against China, but it is puzzling that this victory comes from a hypocritical rhetoric devoid of progress rather than actual institutional contribution in any field. In fact, this is not the first rebirth of Cold War politics or discourse. During this period of declining relative hegemony, the US and its Allies suffered a series of economic and military setbacks, while the Chinese government’s expansion and accumulation projects became more successful. International competition expressed in legal-human rights discourse did not stop at norms per se, but was shaped by the United States as a deeper racist ideology. In this model, the United States and its Allies can declare hostile states a threat to the international legal order and international human rights, but they themselves can legitimately circumvent the same responsibility and even ignore their own human rights obligations in the name of upholding the will of the international community, as in the case of Afghanistan, which has been widely condemned, and the issue of indigenous racism.
Susan Marks, a left-wing international jurist, argues that human rights are, in a sense, a form of “calculated suffering”, because they draw attention to things while ignoring root causes. The essence of Cold War politics was right here, because American politicians, such as Eisenhower and Reagan, motivated by the fervor against communism and the promotion of liberalism, cared less about human rights and petty institutions than about pinning the label of “tyranny” on rivals like the Soviet Union or China, and to make the world forget about human rights abuses committed by US-backed military governments in Latin America and apartheid in South Africa. It’s a human right, but it’s dehumanized, it’s just political. When human rights are divorced from humanity, how much of the international reputation and moral legitimacy of OHCHR is left to live on? This question can only be answered by history.
(Author: Mansoor Sadiq)


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