China suffocates civil society at United Nations

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The Jeju Olle Foundation has a simple and straightforward mission. The South Korean non-governmental organization (NGO) seeks to maintain long-distance hiking trails on Jeju Island. But the organization had drawn the wrath of a Chinese diplomat. At a UN meeting in May, the Chinese official asserted that the foundation had not “used the correct terminology for the province of Taiwan on its website. The breach prompted the Beijing delegation to the UN to question South Korean society’s request for consultative status at the UN – a vital civil society advocacy mechanism that, among other things, enables NGOs to participate in UN procedures – during the May 21 session of the UN Economic and Social Council. (ECOSOC) Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations.

Applications from six other NGOs considered the same day, including Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership and the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization, were also postponed due to similar objections from Beijing, although there is no provision for the UN demanding that NGOs take a stand. on the status of Tibet, Taiwan or any other territory claimed by the People’s Republic of China. Other organizations, such as the World Yoga Community, have changed their websites to appease Beijing and advance their committee nominations, for example by including “Province of China” after “Taiwan” or simply removing Taiwan’s name. Others, like the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, have given up on consultative status altogether.

China is the country most active in blocking NGO applications for the United Nations, even though the organizations engage in the most innocuous and controversial activities. China doesn’t just control civil society within its own borders. Given the role of NGOs in promoting human rights around the world and in bringing attention to human rights crimes in China, Beijing is working to reduce the space of these groups to internationally. While China’s military prowess and economic clout is visibly changing the world, Beijing’s ascendancy is also manifested in its subversion of UN organs as part of a more muscular global posture under the Chinese president. Xi Jinping.

The Jeju Olle Foundation has a simple and straightforward mission. The South Korean non-governmental organization (NGO) seeks to maintain long-distance hiking trails on Jeju Island. But the organization had drawn the wrath of a Chinese diplomat. At a UN meeting in May, the Chinese official asserted that the foundation had not “used the correct terminology for the province of Taiwan on its website. The breach prompted the Beijing delegation to the UN to question South Korean society’s request for consultative status at the UN – a vital civil society advocacy mechanism that, among other things, enables NGOs to participate in UN procedures – during the May 21 session of the UN Economic and Social Council. (ECOSOC) Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations.

Applications from six other NGOs considered the same day, including Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership and the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization, were also postponed due to similar objections from Beijing, although there is no provision for the UN demanding that NGOs take a stand. on the status of Tibet, Taiwan or any other territory claimed by the People’s Republic of China. Other organizations, such as the World Yoga Community, have changed their websites to appease Beijing and advance their committee nominations, for example by including “Province of China” after “Taiwan” or simply removing Taiwan’s name. Others, like the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, have given up on consultative status altogether.

China is the country most active in blocking NGO applications for the United Nations, even though the organizations engage in the most innocuous and controversial activities. China doesn’t just control civil society within its own borders. Given the role of NGOs in promoting human rights around the world and in bringing attention to human rights crimes in China, Beijing is working to reduce the space of these groups to internationally. While China’s military prowess and economic clout is visibly changing the world, Beijing’s ascendancy is also manifested in its subversion of UN organs as part of a more muscular global posture under the Chinese president. Xi Jinping.

The current rules of the United Nations Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations allow states to ask any question, no matter how mundane and repetitive, to defer an NGO’s candidacy until the committee’s next biannual meeting. If, for example, an NGO that assists victims of human trafficking is asked a trivial question, such as why it sells handmade jewelry on its website, the organization’s request is postponed to the next meeting. Several repressive states have used this method to continually delay certain requests for years. An analysis of summaries of committee meetings and reports from 2016 to 2019 found that China was the most frequent member state to ask questions to delay and block civil society candidates. He did so 340 times, overtaking South Africa (337 times), India (283 times), Cuba (220 times) and Russia (172 times).

A total of 964 NGOs with requests to the committee were postponed at least once (many were postponed multiple times), and in 25 percent of those cases, an issue from China caused the postponement. Reports and interviews with diplomats, UN officials and NGO representatives provide compelling evidence that Beijing seeks to strangle NGOs, by limiting their role at the UN or trying to prevent them from participating in the UN. all. As a result of these blocking efforts, a UN official has estimated that only about 25 percent of human rights NGOs end up obtaining consultative status.

This status is vital for the advocacy efforts of civil society organizations. It allows them to attend and speak at UN debates, such as the Human Rights Council, submit information to UN bodies, organize events at the UN and participate in negotiations. China, along with other authoritarian nations, has been active in blocking applications from civil society organizations, especially those focused on human rights. Although civil society groups have increasingly complained about the misuse of the ECOSOC Committee, originally established in 1996 to facilitate NGO participation in UN affairs, relatively little attention has been paid to it. been granted to the strong armament of China.

For example, in 2018, China attempted to remove UN consultative status from the Society for Threatened Peoples, an organization focused on ethnic and minority issues, because the NGO had, in the words of the Beijing representative , “Facilitated the participation of [Uyghur politician] Dolkun Isa, a designated terrorist in China ”by inviting him to a forum on indigenous issues. According to the Chinese diplomat, Isa, an activist from the persecuted Uyghur minority in China, headed an organization that “demanded the so-called independence of Xinjiang.” China did not give in until after the Society for Threatened Peoples sent a written response reaffirming its commitment to “the purposes and principles of the United Nations, respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China … [as well as expressing] its unequivocal opposition to terrorism.

Chinese diplomats may also find it more convenient to cite territorial concerns about Taiwan or Tibet rather than openly objecting to an NGO’s mission. According to a representative of a human rights organization, Beijing picked up on minor issues and “complained that a map on our website uses different colors for Taiwan and China.” As the NGO continued to make changes to appease Chinese officials, it became clear that Beijing’s opposition to the organization was much greater. When NGO representatives met with other state delegates on the committee, “other countries said they had already been approached by China, and China had basically asked them to oppose. to our application. … One of the missions said, ‘China told me you are a very, very bad organization.’ “

Other countries, especially authoritarian powers, often join Beijing in blocking NGO applications, and their actions often appear to be coordinated. From my own research, the Like Minded-Group of Developing Countries, an informal coalition of around 51 (mostly autocratic) regimes, is responsible for 94 percent of NGO deferrals. Autocratic states often protect each other by resisting civil society groups that focus on authoritarian allies. For example, during the January 2016 review of the Iranian Center for Human Rights Documentation, China, Iran and Cuba all interviewed the group. Diplomats reported observing “documents passed during the committee session” or “a delegation, like Egypt, rising and marching towards another delegation. [such as] Sudan, Burundi, Iran or Venezuela, and leaves[ing] their a document that appears to be an already drafted question… and then this country would ask a question that reflected the concerns of the Egyptian government. These efforts are worrying evidence of authoritarian collusion aimed at putting a ceiling on civil society at the United Nations.

The future ability of NGOs to operate within the UN will largely depend on the response of democratic countries and their willingness to draw attention to the need to fight authoritarian powers that abuse their presence at the UN. Although they divide, the membership criteria could alleviate this problem. A simple benchmark for membership in the NGO Committee could be that any country will be banned if it has been included in the UN Secretary General’s report on intimidation and retaliation against civil society. Such a reform agenda will require broad support from all nations that value freedom of assembly and civil society, not just Western liberal democracies. Inaction will allow China and its authoritarian allies to stifle the life of civil society and the defense of human rights within the world organization.

A full version of this essay appears in the July issue of Democracy Journal.


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