Photo: Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the UNCA press conference on 14 January 2020 (from left to right) Louis Charbonneau, UN director at HRW; Emma Daly, media director, HRW; Kenneth Roth, executive director, HRW and Sophie Richardson, China director, at HRW presenting HRW 2020 Annual Report focusing on China. Credit: Erol Avdović - Webpublicapress New York 2020. - Photo: 2020

UN Chief Urged to Name and Shame Perpetrators of Human Rights Violations

By Erol Avdović, WebPublicaPress

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) – Informed East River diplomats characterize the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres as a “tough nut”. Perhaps because he feels he is ‘untouchable’ and believes he is above everybody? But others maintain that he is a man of least resistance – in fear of the mightier above him. In fact, the knowledgeable encourage the latter view. The World Report 2020: Human Rights Trends Around the Globe focusing on China and presented at the UN affirms that Mr. Guterres does not want to offend the countries that HRW calls grave human rights abusers.

He does not want to be brazen toward countries from China to the United States and the other powerful or rich, especially now that the UN is facing yet another financial crisis. Although he is constantly talking about “ongoing reforms”, the UN chief increasingly seems to offer less vision and nothing more than commonplace rhetoric – a reason Human Rights Watch took on him.

Who is feeling the heat?

Addressing UN-accredited journalists, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth stated that Mr. Guterres prefers to be silent when he should be speaking out, and his reactions on various important topics related to human rights abuses are too general. Such statements, as Mr. Roth suggested, do not help those whose rights have been violated.

Mr. Roth whom the government of China recently denied entry to Hong Kong – where he wanted to present the 335-page HRW Annual Report with spotlight on more than 100 countries and territories worldwide, drawing on events from late 2018 through November 2019 – said they had purposely chosen the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

The Human Rights Watch wanted to deliver a strong message to China. Unfortunately, he indicated, there was little, certainly not sufficient cooperation from the top at the UN to deliver that kind of a strong and unambiguous message to Beijing.

Not too long ago, in April 2019. Kenneth Roth wrote a fiercely intoned article in the Washington Post stating that the UN Secretary-General Guterres had nothing more than a poor record on human rights.

Answering a question at the press conference at the UN in New York January 14, Mr. Roth told WebPublicaPress (WPP) that the Washington Post was the last resort, after the UN Secretary-General heard their appeals, but remained deaf to their calls.

Mr. Roth said, he wouldn’t like “to pretend that the Secretary-General never did anything for human rights, because there are times when he (Mr. Guterres) stands for human rights”.

“But, he is being very reluctant to speak publicly in focused terms about Human Rights, (HR) particularly if the abuser is a powerful nation,” Mr. Roth told WebPublicaPress. “So, you will see him making broad statements, for example – I urge respecting human rights, or I wish all parties should respect HR. Those are very nice generic statements, but nobody feels the heat.”

Mr. Roth further stressed, “if no one feels the heat, statements like that make no sense. Governments have the reasons to violate human rights – it is the way to stay in power.”

The need for a new public posture

HRW says unless the UN changes its approach and reaffirms the stigma attached to human rights abuses, there can be no change by government offenders. “That’s why we push for much more public statements on HR,” Roth said.

Human Rights Watch executive director said it is not even helpful when the UN Secretary-General says he is “bringing the issues (to the countries) in private”.

“The agents of change are almost always the people of the country and it is certainly the case in China.” The situation with massive protests on the streets of Hong Kong is certainly an evidence that the people are trying to change things when local government fails.

“The real test is: are you helping the agents of change? And if you make some private representation in the back room of a Foreign Ministry and nobody hears you it does not make any difference,” Roth told WPP.

He added, it does not make sense to do it that way, especially when “the public presentation is a nice photo-op, smiling and shaking hands”.

Others say it is indeed about perception: One can imagine the message the public takes from that pictures having the UN chief demonstrating public cordiality toward the leadership in Beijing as a clear sign of support for the Chinese government. The only way to erase that impression is to say something publicly, but specific – not generic, and certainly not to put equal blame on all sides.

Asked to comment on Mr. Roth’s press conference and his criticism of the Secretary-General that he had not spoken enough and directly on China’s repression against the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, Stephan Dujarric, chief UN spokesperson said they (UN) “were delighted that Mr. Roth chose the UN to launch his report, and we welcome everybody into this building”.

But he also said, the Secretary-General, “on a number of occasions, raised a number of issues”. While visiting Beijing in 2019, Mr. Dujarric said, the UN chief had raised the issues with his Chinese counterparts, including the situation in Xinjiang. Mr. Dujarric stressed his boss’s “position and his message is the same in public and in private”.

UN policy on China is based on three principles, the UN spokesperson said: “A full respect for the unity and territorial integrity of China, condemnation of terrorist attacks and that human rights must be fully respected in the fight against terrorism and the prevention of violent extremism.  Each community must feel that its identity is respected, and it fully belongs to the nation as a whole.”

When it comes to Hong Kong, since 1997 China is trying to uphold the concept of “one country, two systems”. Thus, Hong Kong is recognized as a part of China, but with a different administrative and economic system. Massive pro-democracy movement in Hog Kong seeks a direct popular vote for city’s chief executive, but official Beijing wants to keep its power with a Communist Party loyalist on top.

Two more years to improve

“What is needed is to point public criticism to a rise in human rights violations. And we don’t see that coming out from the Secretary-General’s office nearly enough,” Mr. Roth said at the UNCA (United Nations Correspondents Association) Club, that served as a venue in the UN to present HRW Annual Report 2020.

Asked specifically by WPP, whether Guterres should consider running for a second mandate (his first term end of 2021), bearing in mind his ambiguity about Human Rights Roth didn’t reply immediately. But, shortly after sent his answer through UN Human Rights director Louis Charbonneau:

“Whether or not the Secretary-General runs for a second term isn’t something we’d take a position on. We only ask that he start prioritizing human rights now in a way that he hasn’t done so far. He’s got two years left in his term, which is ample time to reverse course and make human rights a top priority and not an afterthought. He should start by regularly calling out governments clearly and publicly whenever warranted – including powerful ones like China, but also the U.S., Saudi Arabia and others,” said Mr. Roth.

Critics agree this Secretary General does not want to make any completely independent move until he sees how the most powerful countries – first and foremost Washington – will react around China.

In December 2019, US President Donald Trump signed human rights legislation supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and U.S. lawmakers followed by immediately passing the “Uighur Human Rights Policy Act”. It calls for targeted sanctions on certain members of the Chinese government. Although called upon the European Union and its member states as a whole didn’t impose any sanctions to China. The unrest in Hong Kong and the ongoing minority oppression in Xinjiang, continues now for many months, credible media reports say.

Language needs to be changed

At the UN, Mr. Roth did not spare harsh words of criticism when it came to Beijing authorities: “China has developed an Orwellian high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system to monitor and suppress public criticism,” he said in a HRW statement sent to UN correspondents in New York, just prior of launching of the annual report. HRW suggests that if China continues like this it will face grey future decades of impressive economic growth. And that will certainly impact the world.

“If not challenged, Beijing’s actions portend a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach.”

The HRW specifically pointed out that the Chinese government is now “trying to extend censorship to the rest of the world”. Mr. Roth said governments “need to act together to resist Beijing’s assault on the international human rights system”.

But the United Nations must put an end to silence and the practice of smooth, skillfully complex speech that does not oblige for change. it should simply say who is to blame and who is responsible for it. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 January 2020]

Photo: Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the UNCA press conference on 14 January 2020 (from left to right) Louis Charbonneau, UN director at HRW; Emma Daly, media director, HRW; Kenneth Roth, executive director, HRW and Sophie Richardson, China director, at HRW presenting HRW 2020 Annual Report focusing on China. Credit: Erol Avdović – Webpublicapress New York 2020.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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