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From Country-specific Review to Universal Periodic Review: A Fairer International Human Rights Mechanism
February 27,2022   By:CSHRS
From Country-specific Review to Universal Periodic Review: A Fairer International Human Rights Mechanism
 
MAO Junxiang*
 
Abstract: In the Country-specific by the Commission on Human Rights, developed countries lead selective supervision and review the human rights conditions in developing countries, contributing to the inequality in the roles of developed and developing countries and highlighting the unfairness and unreasonableness of the international human rights mechanism. In the Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council, developed countries and developing countries are procedurally equal when evaluating the human rights conditions of other countries, and the evaluation of human rights conditions has transitioned from selective to universal. The development from the Country-specific Review to the Universal Periodic Review system is the result of China and other developing countries working together to optimize the internal governance structure of the Human Rights Council to rationalize its operational logic. Although the Universal Periodic Review system cannot immediately change the predominant status of the Western human rights discourse, it provides a mechanism for all countries to express their human rights values on an equal footing. It is an important manifestation of a fairer and more 
reasonable international human rights mechanism.
 
Keywords: Country-specific Review · Universal Periodic Review · Human Rights Council
 
I. Unfairness in the International Human Rights Mechanism
 
In modern times, developed countries in Europe have gained comparative advantages over developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in establishing human rights concepts and systems. These comparative advantages have transformed into the dominance of the United States and the developed countries in Europe in the international human rights discourse and their making of the rules for human rights in the 20th century. This dominance is manifested in three ways. First, they have the greatest influence in generating and disseminating human rights concepts. For example, when they put forward a certain human rights concept, this concept will be recognized in the process of persuasion, argument, and competition against other human rights concepts. Second, they enjoy authoritativeness in formulating, developing, and applying human rights rules, such as putting forward specification designs for certain human rights issues to be incorporated into international human rights conventions. Third, they are dominant in establishing and operating human rights institutions and supervision mechanisms, and have the greatest say in capacity building and the operation of international human rights institutions and can thus manipulate the international human rights supervision procedures to evaluate the human rights situations in other countries. These three dimensions are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. Human rights concepts are the core of human rights rules, while such rules reinforce and justify the concepts. Human rights rules are the legal basis for the human rights mechanism to function, while the mechanism guarantees the implementation of the rules. A functional human rights mechanism can strengthen certain human rights concepts by setting agendas and making rules.
 
That’s why so many countries attach great importance to dominating the formulation and application of human rights rules as well as having control of the international human rights institutions to evaluate the human rights of other countries. Take the working mechanism of the United Nations on human rights as an example: First, countries compete to set the human rights agenda and promote the adoption of relevant human rights resolutions, emphasizing certain human rights concepts or issues and reinforcing specific human rights propositions, positions, or discourses. Second, for the formulation of rules, countries recommended their citizens to the Human Rights Council to be experts or special rapporteurs. By determining the draft rules and their implementation framework, they form a discourse advantage in rulemaking. Most of the core UN human rights conventions have been drafted by the Commission on Human Rights or its successor the Human Rights Council before being adopted by the UN General Assembly. Therefore, drafting panels and special rapporteurs have a huge influence on the core concepts and frameworks of the conventions. Third, in the country-specific review mechanism of the Commission on Human Rights, the developed countries in Europe and North America frequently put forward conclusions on the human rights situations of specific countries, thus forming a discourse advantage in the evaluating of other countries’ human rights situations.
 
This practice has shown that countries are not in an equal position in agenda-setting, rule-making, and human rights evaluation in the international human rights mechanism. Take human rights evaluation as an example. After the Cold War, almost all the resolutions on country-specific human rights situations adopted by the Commission on Human Rights focused on developing countries. The developed countries in Europe and North America led the agenda-setting on human rights and promoted visits by special rapporteurs to specific countries. The UN General Assembly thus adopted resolutions on the human rights situation in these countries based on the reports of the special rapporteurs. Since developed countries dominated the agenda-setting at the Commission, it was difficult for developing countries’ bills calling for reviews of the human rights situations in developed countries to be adopted. Between 1991 and 2005, after the end of the Cold War, the Commission on Human Rights adopted 196 resolutions reviewing the human rights situation of countries (or regions). Among them, 40 were about reviewing the human rights situation of the occupied Palestinian Territory and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. The remaining 156 resolutions all targeted developing countries, including 14 for Myanmar, 12 for Iraq, and 11 each for Cuba, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Cambodia.1 In other words, during the above-mentioned period, the Commission on Human Rights predominantly conducted country-specific reviews on the human rights situation in developing countries, which undoubtedly encouraged the stereotype that the human rights situation of developing countries was bad. The logic behind this stereotype is that only developed countries are entitled to review the human rights situation of developing countries. Since the end of the Cold War, some developed countries have carried out frequent military operations abroad and imposed unilateral sanctions on some developing countries, causing large-scale humanitarian disasters and human rights violations. The Commission on Human Rights has turned a blind eye to this and has not adopted any country-specific resolutions to review the above-mentioned situation. This indicates that the Commission on Human Rights is politically biased and selective and applies double standards in the country-specific human rights reviews.
 
The country-specific review system and the politicization of human rights behind it reveal the problems in the international human rights mechanism. From the perspective of developing countries, the country-specific reviews of the Commission on Human Rights have long targeted developing countries, which encourages the unfair roles of developed and developing countries in which developed countries act as moral judges and conduct open human rights trials against developing countries. For example, on May 10, 2001, Vietnam’s People’s Army Newspaper published a commentary on the US failure to be elected to the Human Rights Commission — “U.S. Defeat in the Election of the Commission on Human Rights Is a Manifestation of the International Community Against Hegemony,” saying that has set itself up as a “judge” to try other countries.2 In fact, since the 1990s, developing countries have been committed to pushing forward the reform of the international human rights mechanism to establish a fair institutional guarantee for equal participation of all countries in the international human rights mechanism. Important progress in this effort was the replacement of the Commission on Human Rights with the Human Rights Council in 2006 and the establishment of the Universal Periodic Review mechanism in 2007. 
 
II. Country-specific Reviews of Human Rights: Entrenched Unequal Roles
 
A. From drafting human rights rules to reviewing the human rights situation in different countries: The functions of the Commission on Human Rights have been gradually expanded
 
In 1946, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Commission on Human Rights to flesh out the human rights provisions in the Charter of the United Nations. The Commission was responsible for advancing the United Nation’s efforts to promote the “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” From 1947 to 1967, the Commission’s main job was to draft international human rights conventions, which would be signed and ratified by countries once adopted by the UN General Assembly. During this period, countries competed to influence the international human rights documents drafted by the Commission and demonstrated their human rights positions to the world through their delegates in the Commission, striving to gain a discourse advantage in the competition of ideas. When explaining why all the member states of the United Nations tried to influence the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the Commission, Western scholars put it bluntly: “an important motive — for the most powerful States in particular — was the need to avoid criticism and, at the same time, to have an opportunity to criticize others. Human rights had become a weapon in the ideological warfare between East and West.”3
 
Since 1967, the functions of the Commission on Human Rights have been expanded. In addition to continuing to develop and codify international human rights rules, it has also been authorized by ECOSOC to deal with human rights violations. To this end, the Commission has established a series of mechanisms and procedures, such as Special Procedures (conducted by special rapporteurs and expert groups) based on country-specific mandates and thematic mandates, complaint procedures such as the 1503 procedure, and the adoption of resolutions on the human rights situations in specific countries.4
 
B. Country-specific Reviews of the Commission on Human Rights: entrenched roles of “judge” and “defendant”
 
After the end of the Cold War, the Commission on Human Rights reviewed the human rights situations of specific countries many times under the leadership of developed countries in Europe and North America. In practice, the roles of different types of countries are been deeply entrenched in the human rights reviews of the Commission on Human Rights. Certain countries, such as Democratic Republic of Korea, Myanmar, Syria and Libya, are always in the position of “defendant,” while the developed countries in Europe and North America play the role of “judge.” At the 76th Plenary Meeting of the 59th Session of the UN General Assembly on December 23, 2004, the delegate of Cuba pointed out: “...developed countries are hijacking many aspects of the work of the Organization in this area to serve their political interests, thereby obliterating any semblance of non-selectivity, impartiality, and objectivity in the workings of the United Nations human rights machinery... In so doing, the United Nations would be going along with the role of a judge in matters pertaining to human rights issues that some Member States have bestowed upon themselves while fully ignoring their problems or those of their allies. None of that contributes to restoring the prestige being lost by the United Nations bodies working in the field of human rights, starting with the Commission on Human Rights itself.”5 The phenomenon of the entrenched roles reflects the difference in status between developed and developing countries in the international human rights mechanism. It also shows the even stronger position of developed countries in Europe and North America in the international discourse on human rights and the evaluation of countries’ human rights situations.
 
This process is prone to political confrontation based on human rights issues due to the political elements and double standards involved. For countries under review or to be reviewed, it is like a “public trial.” Since 1990, the developed countries in Europe and North America have submitted draft resolutions to the Commission on Human Rights 11 times, requesting the Commission review the human rights situation in China. Except for the 1995 draft resolution on the human rights situation in China, which was put to a vote (but not adopted in the end), similar bills proposed by the developed countries in Europe and North America in other years were all frustrated by China or other countries via a motion of not putting them to a vote.6
 
First, the country-specific review shows that the developed countries have seized the initiative to evaluate the human rights situation in countries they select. It is hard to say that developed countries in Europe and North America pay attention to the human rights situation in China, and other countries subject to their evaluations, out of goodwill or an intention to promote human rights. On the contrary, it is related to the diplomatic offensive on human rights by the developed countries in Europe and North America since the late 1970s and the post-Cold War landscape. In terms of using human rights as a weapon to attack other countries, the developed countries in Europe and North America have used the country-specific reviews of the Commission on Human Rights as a platform for “naming and shaming.” When the Commission reviewed a country’s human rights situation, that country was forced to defend its position on human rights and its human rights practice, this immediately put the country under review at a disadvantage in the court of public opinion. Countries that initiated a review at the Commission easily gained the moral advantage of promoting human rights and the initiative in evaluating the human rights situation of the country under review.
 
Second, the country-specific reviews also involved the competition for dominance on the interpretation and application of international human rights rules and the pros and cons of human rights implementation models. The proposers expressed their concerns about the human rights issues in a country by proposing a draft resolution on reviewing a country’s human rights situation mainly on the grounds that the country they are targeting has some human rights issues and these issues do not comply with the requirements of existing international human rights rules and need to be corrected in accordance with the existing rules. This situation indicates that the proposers are trying to seize control of the discourse in interpreting and applying international human rights standards. The logic is that the proposers are correct in their interpretation and application of the path or model of implementing human rights rules based on certain human rights rules or standards that they themselves have formulated, even though they do not adhere to these standards themselves. Naturally, it has repeatedly reinforced the discourse advantage of the proposers in interpreting and applying international human rights rules and the models for fulfilling international human rights obligations.
 
Third, the country-specific reviews also reflect the selective application of specific human rights concepts by the developed countries in Europe and North America. For example, almost all the drafts on reviewing the human rights situation in China focused on prioritizing civil and political rights. This focus is different from China’s position and discourse on human rights. For China, the rights to subsistence and development are the primary basic human rights. The developed countries in Europe and North America ignored China’s human rights progress in improving its economic and social conditions and adopted selectivity and double standards against China, thus politicizing human rights. Therefore, the discourse debate surrounding the country-specific reviews was naturally manifested in the form that each country would declare their human rights concepts and refute their competitors’ human rights concepts before a vote.
 
In short, the selective supervision of the country-specific reviews led many developing countries to be regularly reviewed by the Commission on Human Rights, with the developed countries in Europe and North America putting themselves forward as “judges” to publicly evaluate the human rights situation of developing countries at the Commission. This not only led to inequality in the discourse status between the developing and developed countries, it also reinforced the disadvantaged status of some reviewed developing countries at the Commission and even in the international community, which further encouraged the entrenched roles between developed and developing countries in international public opinion.
 
C. Country-specific Reviews of the Human Rights Council: historical inertia of entrenched roles
 
The country-specific review mechanism was initially retained in the operations of the Human Rights Council. Despite the emphasis placed by the Human Rights Council on the objective and non-selective review of human rights issues, the data show that the main targets of country-specific reviews by the Council remained developing countries, which is, in fact, a manifestation of the selective reviews. As of September 2020, the Council had adopted 161 country-specific resolutions at its 45 regular sessions, namely Israel (32), Syria (31), Myanmar (18), North Korea (14), Belarus (12), Iran (11), Eritrea (10), South Sudan (6), Sudan (5), Burundi (4), Venezuela (3), Yemen (3), Congo (2), Mali (2), Palestine (1), Honduras (1), C?te d’Ivoire (1), Libya (1), Philippines (1), Nicaragua (2), and Sri Lanka (1).7 By September 2020, the Council had held 29 special sessions in addition to 45 regular sessions. These 29 special sessions also discussed the human rights situation in particular countries. According to statistics, the country-specific resolutions adopted at these 29 special sessions involve the following issues: the Arab-Israeli conflict (8), the ongoing civil war in Syria caused by foreign interference (5), Myanmar’s human rights situation (3), global human rights issues (3), Central African Republic’s human rights situation (1), Libya’s human rights situation (1), human rights situation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1), human rights situation of C?te d’Ivoire (1), South Sudan’s human rights situation (1), Burundi’s human rights situation (1), Nigeria’s human rights situation (1), Sri Lanka’s human rights situation (1), human rights situation of Darfur in Sudan (1), and Iran’s human rights situation (1).8
 
It can be seen from the above that Israel has been the No.1 target of these country-specific resolutions. That’s because “the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” was long on the agenda of the Human Rights Council, which has reviewed Israel’s alleged violations of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. But, country-specific resolutions concerning Israel can be regarded as a special case in comparison with those on the domestic human rights situations of the other countries. Even so, the frequent reviews have prompted accusations by the United States and Israel of a “continuing anti-Israel bias.” Aside from Israel, all the country-specific resolutions of the Council target developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. The human rights situation of the countries concerned is indeed unsatisfactory, but the overwhelming focus on developing countries raised doubts about the fairness and universality of the country-specific review of the Human Rights Council. As is known to all, developed countries including the United States and Australia committed serious human rights violations and humanitarian violations during the War in Afghanistan. According to a study report by the China Society for Human Rights Studies, since US troops entered Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, over 30,000 local civilians have been killed by the US-led forces. More than 60,000 have been injured, and about 11 million have become refugees.9 On November 19, 2020, local time, the Australian Defense Force Chief Angus Campbell admitted there was “credible information to substantiate 23 alleged incidents of the unlawful killing of 39 people (Afghans), perpetrated by 25 Australian Special Forces soldiers, predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment.”10 Despite this, human rights violations and humanitarian law violations committed by the US and Australian forces in Afghanistan have not come to the attention of the country-specific resolutions of the Human Rights Council. One cannot but realize that the country-specific resolutions of the Human Rights Council have inherited the selectivity, politicization, and other deep-rooted problems of the Commission on Human Rights.
 
III. Universal Periodic Review: Institutional Guarantee for Equal Status
 
A. Restricting the Country-specific Review of human rights: voice and promotion from developing countries
 
The selectivity, double standards, and confrontation of the country-specific reviews of the Commission on Human Rights prompted some developing countries, which have suffered a lot from them, to firmly oppose the retention of this mechanism by the Human Rights Council. Developing countries called for reform of the international human rights mechanism, especially the Commission on Human Rights. For example, China has criticized the country-specific reviews on many occasions for deviating from their purpose, which can easily lead to selectivity, double standards, and political confrontation, and said reform is therefore necessary.11 During the formative stages of the Human Rights Council, China led the Like-Minded Group (LMG) which was against singling out any countries for criticism or comment within the Council.12 At the opening of the 51st session of the Commission on Human Rights in 2005, the Commission chairperson from Indonesia called on governments to refrain from defamatory statements on the alleging human rights violations in countries, which was echoed by China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan and the Republic of Korea, and criticized the Commission for acting in a politicized manner; Pakistan noted the increasing politicization of the country-specific resolutions adopted by the Commission; the Republic of Korea called for dialogue, consultation, and consensus-building to avoid politicization of the Commission’s work; Cuba criticized the country-specific resolutions most fiercely, accusing the Commission of always taking countries of the South as the defendants in the forum and conducting inquisition tribunals. Cuba believed that true reform should begin by eliminating the pernicious practice of imposing unjust resolutions against countries and putting an end to double standards and the impunity of the most powerful; India also believed that the Commission had deviated from its 1946 role as a standard-setting body.13 
 
Disputes over country-specific resolutions still occurred in the discussions on institution-building in the early days of the Human Rights Council. At the first session of the Human Rights Council on June 22, 2006, delegates of Venezuela and other countries argued that the Council should not have the power to adopt country-specific resolutions. “Most developing countries, represented by like-minded ones, believed that the new institution should serve as a forum for promoting cooperative dialogue. It’s better not to have country-specific proposals. If they are indeed necessary, they should be subject to certain standards, and should not name and shame developing countries as they wish.”14 However, the US delegate believed that the Human Rights Council should be able to respond to a wide range of human rights issues and provide a more robust and flexible mechanism for raising those issues, and therefore the Human Rights Council needs to adopt country-specific resolutions.15 The delegate of the Netherlands also supported country-specific resolutions and believed that the Human Rights Council should have the power to adopt resolutions on a country’s human rights situation.16 Some developing countries proposed a high threshold for country-specific resolutions that country-specific resolutions on a country’s human rights situation should be adopted when a majority of two-thirds of the member states of the Human Rights Council voted for it. This proposal was opposed by the developed countries in Europe and North America because the threshold of a two-thirds majority would make it almost impossible for a country-specific resolution to be adopted.17 In this regard, some scholars believe that although many developing countries, especially Asian countries, support restricting the adoption of country-specific resolutions, they cannot stand a chance of winning on such a divisive issue, especially an issue strongly supported by the developed countries in Europe and North America.18 Despite their politicization, the country-specific reviews do have some positive significance, since they maintain the framework for international supervision of human rights violations. After all, receiving international supervision on fulfilling human rights obligations was a basic consensus reached by countries when the Human Rights Council was established. The problem is that the country-specific reviews are manipulated by the developed countries in Europe and North America in practice as a tool to maintain their dominance in the international arena. Given that developed countries in Europe and North America strongly support the retention of this mechanism, the Human Rights Council has to find a compromise on this issue.
 
In this context, “to prevent country-specific human rights from becoming a tool for politicizing human rights issues again and to build prestige and authority for the newly established Human Rights Council, China, and other developing countries have put forward clear application standards for country-specific proposals during the institution-building consultations. Under the active promotion of China and other developing countries, the ‘chairperson’s text’ makes it clear that country-specific proposals should secure the broadest possible support (preferably jointly signed by the 15 member states).”19 China’s suggestion on the standards for country-specific proposals has been recognized by many developing countries because it can prevent abuse of the country-specific review mechanism to some extent and so protect the Human Rights Council from falling into the same predicament of political confrontation that the Commission on Human Rights faced before. This suggestion was eventually incorporated into the Human Rights Council’s Resolution 5/1 on capacity-building. This resolution emphasizes that “proposers of a country resolution have the responsibility to secure the broadest possible support for their initiatives (preferably 15 members) before action is taken.” The emphasis on “broadest possible support” implies that proposals for reviewing a country’s human rights situation must have a reasonable consensus on its positions and an objective appraisal of possible human rights violations. This arrangement is like a threshold, which aims to prevent arbitrary actions by individual countries from triggering unnecessary confrontations between the countries involved. 
 
B. Universal Periodic Review: non-selectivity and equal status
 
While retaining the country-specific review procedure, the Human Rights Council has responded to the voice of developing countries by establishing a Universal Periodic Review procedure for all countries. In its Resolution 5/1, the Human Rights Council clearly emphasized that the Universal Periodic Review is “a cooperative mechanism” that is “conducted in an objective, transparent, non-selective, constructive, non-confrontational, and non-politicized manner.” The Universal Periodic Review involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN member states. It is based on equal treatment for all countries. It provides an opportunity for all countries to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to overcome challenges to people’s enjoyment of human rights. Jan Eliasson, the chairperson of the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly, commented that the Human Rights Council “would introduce the universal periodic review as a mechanism whereby each State’s fulfillment of its human rights obligations would be assessed. Such a mechanism would ensure equal treatment with respect to all Member States and would prevent double standards and selectivity.”20 At the High-Level Segment of the First Session of the Human Rights Council on June 19, 2006, the Ghanaian Foreign Minister argued that the Universal Periodic Review mechanism should be “applied equally and fairly to all states without exception. That is the only way the Council’s credibility and integrity can be guaranteed.”21 The delegate of Maldives agreed that the Universal Periodic Review could eliminate the past selectivity of the specific country human rights reviews.22
 
The Universal Periodic Review is a significant innovation of the Human Rights Council. Currently, no other mechanism of this kind exists.23 Professor Philip Alston believes that “ultimately, the reform process has, at least in principle, succeeded in responding to the concerns of both Western countries and the Like-Minded Group by opting to establish a universal periodic review process. In practice, however, the expectations of the two groups are likely to be quite different with the Western Group wanting a probing review process which generates critical country-specific conclusions, and the Like-Minded Group wanting a more general and open-ended process.”24 Therefore, the retention of country-specific resolutions and the establishment of the Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council represent a compromise between selective supervision and universal supervision.
 
Singling out a specific country to review its domestic human rights situation is a “public trial” conducted in the way of “naming and shaming,” while a periodic review of the domestic human rights situation in all countries is a “democratic meeting” based on mutual criticism and self-criticism. Universal, periodic reviews of the human rights protection status in all UN member states have weakened the selective supervision feature of the country-specific reviews of the Commission on Human Rights and eased the tension between developed countries in Europe and North America and developing countries subject to the country-specific reviews. The developed countries in Europe and North America are no longer always in the position of reviewers or “judges.” They also need to receive reviews of their domestic human rights situation by the Human Rights Council. This gives developing countries an equal opportunity to participate in reviewing and evaluating the human rights situation in the developed countries. In this interactive supervision procedure, the entrenched roles between developed countries in Europe and North America and developing countries are significantly weakened, and they have equal identity and discourse status. This mechanism has broken down the long-term role of some developing countries as “defendants” as well as the discourse monopoly of the developed countries in Europe and North America which previously dominated the evaluation of other countries’ human rights situations within the multilateral human rights mechanism.
 
More importantly, the human rights discourse upheld by developing countries can also be equally expressed in the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. The Universal Periodic Review is based primarily on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights conventions, and other human rights obligations committed to by countries. Therefore, there are some fundamental questions that have to be answered in the Universal Periodic Review process: How should the international human rights rules be understood? Has the country under review has fulfilled its international human rights obligations? And, what opinions and suggestions to provide to the country under review? Naturally, reviewers will provide opinions and suggestions to the country under review based on their understanding of international human rights rules. In this process, developing countries can provide opinions and suggestions to developed countries under review and reaffirm the human rights concepts and discourses they support. Countries alternate between the roles of “reviewer” and “the one under review,” and developing countries’ right to equal expression is guaranteed by the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Developed and developing countries can provide opinions and suggestions on each other’s domestic human rights issues. This is an interaction of views and constructive dialogue in which different countries share their human rights views on the same institutional platform. Therefore, compared with the country-specific reviews, the Universal Periodic Review system is more conducive to promoting human rights exchanges and cooperation.
 
IV. A Fairer International Human Rights Mechanism: China’s Human Rights Position and Contribution
 
The transition from the country-specific reviews to the Universal Periodic Review system reflects the continuous improvement of the human rights situation in developing countries and their growing influence. This growing influence has promoted the internal governance and capacity building of the international human rights mechanism to be fairer and more reasonable. China and other developing countries have played an important role in this regard.
 
A. Promoting the optimization of the governance structure of the human rights mechanism
 
In the country-specific review process, international political confrontation, ideological conflict, and other factors eventually turned the Commission on Human Rights into a tool for the political struggles between the West and some developing countries. The institutional culture of the Commission on Human Rights is awash with politicization, regional alliances, bloc voting, and the use of “no-motion procedure” to organize debates on the human rights situation of specific countries. In the Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change of 2004, the UN SecretaryGeneral concluded that the Commission on Human Rights was suffering from eroding credibility and professionalism, and countries had sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others.25 The UN Secretary-General’s Reform Report “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All” suggested replacing the Commission on Human Rights with a smaller standing Human Rights Council.26 This issue was discussed at the World Summit in September 2005. Despite complaints about the Commission on Human Rights, the countries didn’t reach a consensus. The disputes included the criteria, size, composition, electoral procedures, functions, and organizational status of member states, in particular, whether the Human Rights Council should be upgraded to a principal organ of the United Nations.27 As a result, at the World Summit, member states simply called on “the President of the General Assembly to conduct open, transparent and inclusive negotiations, to be completed as soon as possible during the 60th session, with the aim of establishing the mandate, modalities, functions, size, composition, membership, working methods and procedures of the Council.”28 There are three core concerns in the above issues.
 
The first concern is the threshold and electoral criteria for membership of the Human Rights Council. This is related to a member’s qualification to be responsible for the Council’s internal governance. There were different opinions on this issue: (1) High standards and high threshold. In 2004, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made suggestions on the election and criteria of future membership of the Human Rights Council in his report “In Larger Freedom.” The report said: “...whose members would be elected directly by the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of members present and voting... Member States should determine the composition of the Council and the term of office of its members. Those elected to the Council should undertake to abide by the highest human rights standards.”29 (2) The threshold of being “a democracy.” The failure of the United States to be elected to the Commission on Human Rights and the election of Sudan and other countries to the Commission in 2001 spurred the United States and its supporters to put forward targeted positions, that is, abstract or explicit standards to justify their political decision to exclude Libya, Sudan, Cuba, and other countries from the membership of the Commission. In 2004, the United States suggested that only “real democracies” should enjoy the privilege of membership to prevent the Commission on Human Rights from becoming a protected sanctuary for human rights violators.30 The United States argued that a higher hurdle should be set for members of the Human Rights Council to make it harder for countries that are not demonstrably committed to human rights to win seats on the Council. The United States suggested that the Council should elect its members by the General Assembly by a two-thirds majority and keep gross abusers of human rights off the Council. It also proposed that there should be no place on the new Council for countries where there is objective evidence of systematic and gross violations of human rights, or where United Nations sanctions have been applied for human rights violations.31 (3) No threshold. The UN Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change proposed: “We recommend that the membership of the Commission on Human Rights be expanded to universal membership. This would underscore that all members are committed by the Charter to the promotion of human rights, and might help to focus attention back on to substantive issues rather than who is debating and voting on them.”32 (4) Equitable geographical distribution. China and other developing countries opposed the introduction of high thresholds such as membership criteria and direct election by a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly. China also supported the geographical distribution of seats on the Human Rights Council.33
 
The second concern was the size of the Human Rights Council and the form of its membership. During the negotiations on the establishment of the Human Rights Council, most developed countries expected to limit the total number of seats on the Human Rights Council to 38, while the United States still insisted on no more than 30.34 In response, China, Russia, Cuba, and other countries adjusted their positions and put forward the standards of “equitable geographical distribution” and “plurality voting” accordingly. In the Position Paper of the People’s Republic of China on the United Nations Reforms released on June 7, 2005, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized: “To have a small ‘Human Rights Council’ to replace the Commission may not possibly overturn the serious ‘credit deficit’ in the human rights area…”35 At the 23rd Meeting of the Third Committee of the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly on January 26, 2006, the delegate of China pointed out: “The Human Rights Council should have full representation... The members of the Council could be elected by a simple majority of the General Assembly members based on equitable geographical distribution.”36 On July 19, 2005, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations wrote to the Secretary-General: “in the event of a lack of consensus on universal membership, the Russian Federation would be willing to agree to a small reduction in the composition of the new human-rights body, provisionally from the 53 in the existing Commission to between 48 and 50 in the Council. At the same time, it is important to maintain the current principle of election by a simple majority of votes through the regional groups.”37 On March 1, 2006, the Permanent Representative of Cuba to the United Nations wrote to the Secretary-General, denouncing the United States for trying to raise the threshold for membership of the Human Rights Council to reduce its size and keep developing countries off the Council.38 For developing countries, if the size of the Human Rights Council is too small, some countries that want to join the Council may not be elected to it. A small Human Rights Council would give it the appearance of the Security Council, which would make it possible for big powers to control the Council.39 Therefore, “developing countries advocate that the Human Rights Council should maintain the current size of the Commission on Human Rights, that is, with at least 53 seats to reflect the representation of the body.”40
 
The third concern was the effect of developing countries’ efforts to promote the fairness of the international human rights mechanism. Due to strong opposition from China, Russia, Cuba, and other developing countries, the highest human rights standards or the threshold of being “a democracy” proposed by the United States and other countries did not receive universal support. In fact, the measures proposed by the United States, if not used properly, would cause disputes at the time of an election, and the high threshold of a two-thirds majority would only create electoral problems. Moreover, the purpose of the US proposal was to exclude some countries from the Human Rights Council, which was political in intent and deviated from the purpose of cooperation. The “no threshold” proposal in the Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change was not adopted because it was unfeasible. Finally, at the 72nd Plenary Meeting of the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly, the Assembly discussed draft resolution A/60/L.48 on the Human Rights Council.41 This draft resolution was ultimately adopted as Resolution 60/251. Resolution 60/251 reflected the basic positions of China and other developing countries on the Human Rights Council membership criteria, electoral procedures, size, and geographical distribution of seats. On the one hand, with regard to the size and electoral procedures of the Human Rights Council, paragraph 7 of Resolution 60/251 provides: the Council shall consist of 47 Member States, which shall be elected directly and individually by secret ballot by the majority of the members of the General Assembly. In particular, the proposal for the Human Rights Council to elect its members by a two-thirds majority was not incorporated into the resolution, nor was the US proposal to have no more than 30 members supported. “The 47-member Human Rights Council is certainly a far cry from the Secretary-General’s suggestion of a smaller council. The larger size of the Human Rights Council may be due to widespread doubts about the work efficiency of small bodies and the urgent need to strengthen its universality and broad representation. It seeks to make membership equitable and consensual to all geographical regions of the globe.”42 On the other hand, in terms of membership in the Human Rights Council, the United States failed to achieve its goal of excluding some developing countries from the Council by raising the electoral threshold. On the contrary, paragraph 7 of Resolution 60/251 provides that “the membership in the Council shall be open to all States Members of the United Nations” and that “the membership shall be based on equitable geographical distribution”. Paragraph 9 of the resolution simply mentions that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” In general, the institutional design in paragraph 7 of Resolution 60/251 makes it easier for developing countries to be elected members of the Human Rights Council and thus participate in its internal governance. As a result of the equitable geographical distribution of seats, member states from Asia and Africa received 26 of the 47 seats, while the seats of Western European states were reduced from 10 to 7.
 
The convergence of the positions of China, Russia, Cuba, and other developing countries on the threshold of membership and electoral criteria of the Human Rights Council was the key reason the principle of “equitable geographical distribution” replaced the criterion of being “a democracy.” Some scholars believe that these victories are attributable to the widespread support for these positions in many countries because these countries and China have relatively close positions on international relations and human rights issues. During negotiations on the World Summit, China was supported by Russia, Pakistan, and Egypt, whose delegations also supported a larger institution, no membership criteria, and plurality voting. The Non-Aligned Movement countries and other developing countries strongly supported the regional distribution of seats.43
 
It should be said that the current internal governance structure based on the size and membership of the Human Rights Council fully reflects the positions and concerns of China and other developing countries, that is, an appropriate size, equitable geographical distribution, and access to all member states. The internal governance structure of the Human Rights Council has minimized the obstacles for the equal participation of developing countries and enhanced their representation in the internal governance of the Council. When the Commission on Human Rights was still running, only 27 out of 53 seats were held by member states from Asia and Africa. In the Human Rights Council, the proposal of equitable geographical distribution by developing countries has resulted in a more pronounced majority for Asian and African countries in the voting procedures of the Council. In this regard, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented that the relevant resolution of the Human Rights Council redistributed the seats among various regions based on the principle of equitable geographical distribution and solved the problem of the long-standing under-representation of Asian countries in the Commission on Human Rights.44 This change has brought positive effects. The proportion of seats for developing countries in the Human Rights Council is higher than that in the Commission on Human Rights. Developing countries are beginning to gain the initiative on the seats of the Human Rights Council. With their advantages in seat distribution, developing countries can exert increasing influence on the Human Rights Council in terms of capacity building, agenda-setting, and normative development.
 
B. Advocating that the human rights mechanism should adhere to the operating logic of cooperation and dialogue
 
China has long proposed a fundamental reform on the operating logic of the UN Commission on Human Rights. On many occasions, it has proposed that the UN should reverse the current situation of politicizing human rights issues to reduce confrontation and promote cooperation. For example, at the 55th session of the Commission on Human Rights in March 1999, the Chinese delegation proposed to resolve political confrontation between countries with different ideologies and social systems during the Cold War should be abandoned while differences should be properly resolved through dialogue on an equal footing and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect.45 On August 5, 2004, China released the Position Paper of China at the 59th Session of the UN General Assembly, emphasizing: “China is opposed to double standards on human rights or making human rights a political issue... Such reform should help reduce confrontation on human rights issues, promote relevant international cooperation and increase the efficiency of the human rights mechanism.”46 At the 25th Meeting of the Third Committee of the 59th Session of the UN General Assembly on October 26, 2004, the Chinese delegate pointed out: “Although the Commission had made many notable achievements, it was generally perceived against the backdrop of major political confrontations, double standards, and low credibility. Indeed, it continued to be bound by the cold-war concept. Some countries, for domestic political reasons, tried to manipulate the Commission.”47 In February 2005, Ambassador Wang Guangya of the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN stressed in his speech at the Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change and the Millennium Project Report at the Informal Consultations: “It is imperative to change the practice of politicizing the issue of human rights so that the CHR can become a true forum for dialogue and cooperation and a major agency for the promotion and protection of human rights and the advancement of cooperation in human rights at the international level.”48 In April 2005, Ambassador Wang Guangya of the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN pointed out in his statement on Cluster IV (Strengthening the United Nations) of the Secretary-General’s Comprehensive Report at the 59th Session of the General Assembly that “reform of the UN human rights machinery... should focus on depoliticizing human rights questions, reducing confrontation and promoting cooperation...”49 In the Position Paper of the People’s Republic of China on the United Nations Reforms released on June 7, 2005, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs argued: “China is in favour of and supports the reform of UN human rights bodies. The essence of the reform is depoliticizing human rights issues, rejecting double standards, reducing and avoiding confrontation, and promoting cooperation.”50 On June 21, 2005, Ambassador Wang Guangya reiterated the above position in his statement at the Informal Meeting of the General Assembly on the Draft Outcome Document of the September Summit.51
 
China’s position on reform, namely, replacing conflict and confrontation with cooperation and dialogue, was a radical reform of the operating logic of UN human rights bodies. In the field of international human rights, developing countries had long been troubled by the politicization of human rights, so they responded positively to China’s position. This was fully reflected in the 59th and 60th Sessions of the UN General Assembly. At the meeting of the Third Committee of the 59th Session of the UN General Assembly, the delegate of Algeria argued that cooperation in the area of human rights must occur in the context of an honest and sincere partnership based on reciprocity, consultation, and respect for differences, without hegemonism, selectivity or political calculation, to achieve the full realization of all human rights.52 At the meeting of the Third Committee of the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly, Libya,53 Egypt,54 Myanmar,55 Burkina Faso,56 Malaysia,57 Zambia,58 and other countries explicitly opposed the politicization, confrontation, selectivity, and double standards of human rights and emphasized the promotion of human rights protection through international cooperation and dialogue. For example, at the 30th Meeting of the Third Committee of the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly, the delegate of Vietnam held that the selectivity and double standards of the Commission on Human Rights had politicized and paralyzed its work. His Government attached great importance to strengthening international cooperation on human rights on the basis of equality, mutual respect and understanding, and constructive dialogue.59 At the 31st Meeting of the Third Committee of the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly, the delegate of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea pointed out that the politicization of human rights, double standards, selectivity, arrogant admonitions, and open interference in other countries’ internal affairs led to distrust and confrontation, while distorting reality, naming countries and “railroading” resolutions with recourse to military and economic strength did nothing to promote human rights.60
 
The Charter of the United Nations, the constitutional basis for the UN human rights bodies, clearly emphasizes that international cooperation is the only way to realize “human rights and fundamental freedoms.” One purpose of Article 1 of the Charter is to “achieve international co-operation... promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” Article 56 of the Charter states: “All Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55.” The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 reaffirmed the commitment to the purposes and principles contained in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and determined to take new steps forward to achieve substantial progress in human rights endeavours by an increased and sustained effort of international cooperation and solidarity. Under the advocacy of China and other developing countries, the Human Rights Council established in 2006 reaffirmed the concept of international cooperation set out in the Charter of the United Nations, and its mechanism is roughly consistent with China’s basic position in terms of operating logic. For example, Article 4 of Resolution 60/251 adopted by the UN General Assembly on establishing the Human Rights Council stipulated that the work of the Council shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity, and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue, and cooperation.61
 
Resolution 60/251’s emphasis on the operational logic of cooperation and dialogue, universality, objectivity, and non-selectivity established the framework and core values for the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council. At the High-Level Segment of the First Session of the UN Human Rights Council in June 2006, China argued that the proposed Universal Periodic Review should ensure that “all countries, regardless of their size, are treated impartially and in a fair manner.”62 Some countries expressed similar positions. For example, the delegate of India held that the Universal Periodic Review should ensure equal treatment of all Member States and also prevent selectivity and double standards;63 the delegate of Malaysia emphasized that the Council should serve as a useful forum to enhance dialogue, broaden understanding and promote mutual respect and anchor methods of work on genuine cooperation and dialogue.64 At the meeting of the Third Committee of the 61st Session of the UN General Assembly in October 2006, the delegate of China put forward a clear proposal for the institution-building of the Human Rights Council: “The Universal Periodic Review should be conducted in accordance with the principle of justice, fairness, objectivity, and non-selectivity to promote a constructive dialogue rather than allegations and accusations among nations on issues of human rights.”65 With the efforts of China and other developing countries, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 5/1 on establishing the Universal Periodic Review mechanism in 2007, which highlighted the principles of cooperation and dialogue, impartiality and justice, universality, and non-political nature. Paragraph 3 of the resolution — “Principles” — emphasizes that the Universal Periodic Review should: “... (b) Be a cooperative mechanism based on objective and reliable information and on interactive dialogue; (c) Ensure universal coverage and equal treatment of all States; ... (g) Be conducted in an objective, transparent, non-selective, constructive, non-confrontational and non-politicized manner.” This shows that the evolution from the Country-specific Scrutiny mechanism to the Universal Periodic Review mechanism has essentially been a transition in operating logic from confrontation to cooperation in the international human rights mechanism. Although the reality proves that this logical transition cannot prevent politicization in the actual operation of the review mechanism,66 it provides an institutional guarantee for developing countries to express their views on an equal footing.
 
V. Conclusion
 
The development from the country-specific reviews to the Universal Periodic Review mechanism is a phased result of developing countries working to optimize the internal governance structure of the Human Rights Council to make its operating more fair and reasonable. Although it cannot immediately change the strong position of the Western human rights discourse, it provides a mechanism by means of which all countries can express their human rights discourse and participate in the internal governance of the international human rights mechanism on an equal footing. For developing countries, to improve the status of the international discourse on human rights, they should, in the future, further build consensus and coordinate their positions, focus on the reform and restructuring of the international human rights mechanism in terms of its basic principles, operating philosophy, and working methods, and promote the internal governance of the international human rights mechanism so it becomes fairer, more reasonable, and more inclusive.
 
In the evolution from the country-specific review mechanism to the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, China has participated in and made important contributions to institution-building. This is of course can be credited to the improvement of China’s comprehensive national strength, and credited to the similarities in development stages and the convergence of human rights concepts between China and other developing countries. China paid more attention to putting forward a discourse and propositions that reflected the demands of developing countries, such as lowering the threshold for membership of the Human Rights Council and emphasizing the equitable geographical distribution of member states, to safeguard the representation of developing countries in the Human Rights Council. China also called on all countries to engage in dialogue and cooperation and uphold universality, non-selectivity, and non-confrontation in human rights reviews to solve the problem of entrenched unequal roles in the international human rights mechanism. In the future, to promote further reform on the international human rights mechanism, China should not only give full play to its influence in the international human rights order but also coordinate its position with other developing countries.
 
The evolution from the country-specific reviews to the Universal Periodic Review shows that the international human rights mechanism is becoming fairer. However, the Human Rights Council has still not completely got rid of the country-specific reviews, which are characterized by their selectivity. The co-existence of the countryspecific review and the Universal Periodic Review within the Human Rights Council reflects the current dual-supervision model in the Human Rights Council: developing a universal supervision mechanism for all countries while retaining a selective supervision mechanism for specific countries. This dual-supervision mechanism not only reflects the contrast of discourse influence between developed and developing countries in international human rights governance from an institutional perspective but also reveals the inherent nature of the Human Rights Council as a political institution from a realistic perspective. It is foreseeable that this dual-supervision trend will continue for some time. It reflects the complexity and long-term nature of building a fairer and more reasonable global human rights governance system.
 
(Translated by LI Rong)
 
* MAO Junxiang ( 毛俊响 ), Professor, Executive Director of the Human Rights Center, Central South University. This paper is a phased achievement of “Study on Building a Fairer and More Reasonable Global Human Rights Governance System” (20AZD104), a key research subject led by the author under the National Social Science Fund of China, and the “Research on China-related Agenda Items in UN Human Rights Council”, a key research subject of 2020 under the China Society for Human Rights Studies.
 
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55. Ibid., 36.
 
56. UN General Assembly 60th Session Third Committee 31st Meeting Summary Record, agenda item 71: human rights questions, A/C.3/60/SR.31, para.41, accessed July 9, 2021, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N05/578/88/pdf/N0557888.pdf?OpenElement.
 
57. Ibid., 47.
 
58. Ibid., 52.
 
59. A/C.3/60/SR.30, para. 22-23.
 
60. A/C.3/60/SR.31, para. 64.
 
61. UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, A/RES/60/251, March 15, 2006, page 2, accessed July 9, 2021, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N05/502/65/pdf/N0550265.pdf?OpenElement.
 
62. Statements delivered during the High-Level Segment of the First Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, China: Statement by Mr. Yang Jiechi, June 21, 2006, accessed June 1, 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session1/HLS/china.pdf.
 
63. Statements delivered during the High-Level Segment of the First Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, India: Statement by H.E. Mr. Anand Sharma, June 19, 2006, accessed June 1, 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session1/HLS/india.pdf.
 
64. Statements delivered during the High-Level Segment of the First Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Malaysia: Statement by the Honorable Mr. Ahmad Shabery Cheek, June 19, 2006, accessed June 1, 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session1/HLS/
malaysia.pdf.
 
65. Statement by Deputy Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations Liu Zhenmin at 3rd Committee of 61st Session of the General Assembly on Human Rights (Item 66 b, c), Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN, accessed May 20, 2021, http://new.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/ceun/chn/
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66. Some scholars believe that as an intergovernmental political body, the operations of the Human Rights Council are necessarily political. René J. Rouwette, “The Imminent Review of the Human Rights Council, 2009-2011”, 28, Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights 2 (2010):158.
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