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Five Questions on Countering Authoritarian Influence in the UN Human Rights System

September 26, 2023
Rana Siu Inboden

52nd Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva. UN Photo / Violaine Martin

With the UN General Assembly meetings wrapping up, we asked Rana Siu Inboden to update us on the challenges faced by the United Nation’s human rights bodies. As IGCC research has shown (here and here), the Human Rights Council is grappling with a membership that—ironically—is becoming more rather than less authoritarian. Inboden, a member of the IGCC network of scholars working on authoritarian regimes and international institutions, and a senior fellow with the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at The University of Texas at Austin, unpacks what these threats mean and what can be done to stop them.

Why is it getting harder for the United Nations to advance the cause of human rights?

Global human rights norms are being vigorously contested. Dictatorial governments are advancing a campaign of autocracy promotion on multiple fronts, including in the United Nations and through propaganda from government-controlled news outlets. Not only are repressive regimes resisting human rights pressure, they are now trumpeting the superiority of their governance models, promoting authoritarian norms globally, and denigrating open and pluralistic political systems. The Chinese government, for example, has portrayed itself as successful in delivering economic development and governing with efficiency, but fails to mention that its governance model involves coercion, clamping down on dissent, controlling and intimidating the private sector, and repressing much of society, especially Tibetans, Uyghurs, and protestors in Hong Kong.

Repressive governments have also effectively harnessed technology. Many can now block the free flow of information into their countries, restrict online information, and censor the Internet. Russia has used automated bots to create confusion and discord in democratic countries. China is exporting technology to enable other governments to surveil, track, and monitor citizens.

How are repressive governments using global institutions, like the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), to advance an authoritarian agenda and undermine human rights norms?

Authoritarian countries collaborate to resist international human rights pressure by attempting to contain the international human rights regime and dilute human rights norms. For example, they have organized in the United Nations as the Like-Minded Group (LMG), and have exploited a sense of solidarity among countries from the Global South to gain support. As a consequence, even countries that are not hard-core autocracies often affiliate with the LMG, endorsing positions that elevate economic, social, and cultural rights at the expense of civil and political rights. This group proclaims the value of cooperation and dialogue instead of accountability, and portrays concern about human rights from outside actors as interference in internal state affairs.

The LMG has swelled from just over 20 countries in the late 1990s to more than 50 today. They have used these numbers to secure sufficient votes to pass UNHRC resolutions introduced by China that contain numerous PRC (People’s Republic of China) government slogans, such as “win-win cooperation.” These terms may sound harmless, but they advance ideas that states should only cooperate—rather than hold each other accountable—even in the case of massive and severe human rights violations. The assault is not merely rhetorical—these nations have affected key votes. They defeated, for example, a resolution on the atrocities being committed by the PRC against the Uyghurs and opposed a resolution that would have continued the mandate of the UN’s Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen.

Authoritarian states have long-term leaderships that can pursue their preferences year after year without checks and can thus reshape their citizens’ assumptions over the long term. Citizens in democracies don’t necessarily appreciate international human rights institutions—because they don’t have to rely on them—so there’s no natural constituency for international human rights promotion in democracies, and it’s hard to sustain approaches across administrations. What advantages do democracies have in this fight?

People vote with their feet. How many people are trying to immigrate to China, Belarus, North Korea, or Russia? The fact that almost no one is seeking to permanently move to any of those countries and in fact, many want to flee them, is a reminder that no one wants to live under authoritarian rule. It is also not coincidental that the world’s top universities are all in democratic countries. Innovation, human flourishing, and open discussion and debate cannot happen if people are denied civil liberties.

We need to do a better job of demonstrating that these are not merely hypothetical or abstract values but that they have concrete impact. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was realized largely because of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II. Because citizens in democracies have a hard time envisioning the horrors of life under repression, we need to do a better job of helping people understand and appreciate the real value of international human rights norms and what happens when people are denied these freedoms. There is a large-scale art installation and performance called Everybody is Gone where the audience experiences a glimpse of what it is like for a Uyghur to be sent to a detention camp. This is an excellent example of helping people understand what political repression feels like.

Those of us living in democracies have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to help our fellow citizens understand why their government needs to fight and resist authoritarianism and support human rights in other countries. Democratic countries, especially the United States, also need to be cautious about not promoting human rights merely out of geopolitical motivations but out of a principled stance that free countries should not tolerate torture, arbitrary detention, and repression. A consistent and principled stance on human rights avoids putting other nations in the uncomfortable position of having to pick geopolitical sides if they vote with the U.S. on human rights initiatives.

What do threats to human rights actually look like for ordinary people?

Two examples come to mind. The first is Wang Yi, a pastor from China who spoke out against Xi Jinping’s repressive rule, and was arrested in 2018 and given a nine-year sentence on trumped-up charges. His arrest was part of a broader CCP (Chinese Communist Party) crackdown on peaceful religious activities. Another is Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a popular Belarussian dissident, who was arrested in May 2020 two days after declaring his intention to run for president. He was sentenced in December 2021 and his whereabouts are currently unknown. In both cases, ordinary people lose all control over their lives. There is no due process. There is no effective means to resist the state. They are simply taken. And families often receive no information about the fate of their loved ones. Some, like Tikhanovsky, are simply never seen again.

Without the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, there would be no mechanism to review their cases since they face no hope of meaningful redress in China or Belarus. This and other UN mechanisms, like the Special Procedures on Counterterrorism and Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, and Freedom of Opinion and Expression, play invaluable roles in bringing to life the rights that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What does the world look like if the process of bending norms that you have described goes unchecked?

We may see a further weakening of the UN human rights system. An ongoing challenge is the use of hostile amendments to block or dilute crucial rights-protecting resolutions in the HRC. Countries that want to resist robust human rights scrutiny could use these kinds of amendments to weaken the mandates of key Special Procedures or limit their authority.

I’m also concerned about victims’ ability to speak out. The UN has documented how some rights-abusing governments intimidate and harass citizens who use the UN to report human rights violations. Repressive governments are also using their votes to block civil society organizations, limiting their ability to advocate for and protect victims. If human rights victims are afraid to speak out and engage with the UN, there is a risk that the international human rights system will be hollowed out. We need their voices, and the voices of civil society, to hold governments accountable.

If the UN becomes weaker in protecting human rights, and in an era of digital authoritarianism, we risk a world where AI-enabled surveillance systems allow governments to track and monitor people, even through their unique gait or facial features. This would mean that the tools that allow the Chinese government to prevent a human rights activist from traveling to Beijing or leaving the country will fall into the hands of other governments and that these practices will become more widespread. It will be a world where transnational repression becomes more pronounced. Where fragile or vulnerable democracies come under assault. Where democratic backsliding accelerates.

Human rights do not exist in a vacuum. The most repressive countries also tend to pose external security threats, sponsoring or giving safe haven to terrorists, or as active aggressors against other states, as the invasion of Ukraine demonstrates. These countries not only fail to adhere to international human rights norms, they also tend to violate other global norms. Protecting human rights, in other words, is deeply connected with a broader set of values that are increasingly under attack.


RANA SIU INBODEN serves as a consultant on human rights, democracy, and rule of law projects in Asia for a number of nongovernmental organizations. Her first book, China and the International Human Rights Regime (Cambridge, 2021) traces China’s role in the international human rights regime between 1982 and 2017.

Read the report that this blog post is based on here.

Photo credit: UN Geneva