Former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s publication of a long-awaited report finding that China’s abuses against the Uyghurs may have constituted crimes against humanity came in what were literally her last moments in office. As a longtime human rights advocate, I was both relieved and pleased.
It was a relief because many human rights advocates feared the Chinese government had succeeded in intimidating Bachelet, the former President of Chile, and persuaded her not to publish the report. Indeed the timing of the release just before midnight on the last day of her tenure seems to be a tacit indication of just how much pressure had been brought to bear.
Moreover, some advocates, including me, are pleased because the report is such a fine piece of work. It is meticulous and comprehensive in gathering the known evidence of the abuses inflicted on the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, and in making clear the culpability of Chinese authorities for these abuses.
The report also represents an important object lesson at a time when this method of “naming and shaming” countries to promote human rights has come under criticism from many academics who study the field. There is no substitute for the careful documenting of abuses and the reporting of discrepancies between a government’s international obligations to protect rights and its actual practices.
A prominent example of such criticism is the recent work of Jack Snyder, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, who disparages the “naming and shaming” tactic in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, “Why the Human Rights Movement is Losing And How It Can Start Winning Again,” and in his book, “Human Rights for Pragmatists.” He argues that the approach should be replaced by efforts to establish common cause with constituencies that seek social power in various countries where abuses take place. Other academic critics of “naming and shaming” have included Emilie Hafner-Burton of the University of California at San Diego and Leslie Vinjamuri of the University of London.
In assessing naming and shaming, it is worth thinking about what purposes it serves. Many of its critics point out that instances in which a government responds to a critical report by quickly changing its ways tend to be few and far between. Indeed, such demonstrable examples of specific deterrence are scarce. But deterrence is not the only purpose of documenting and reporting abuses and, to the extent it is a factor, a wider lens is required. If abuses are not exposed, will they be followed by additional abuses? And if one government can get away with abuses without exposure and criticism, will it encourage other repressive regimes to resort to similar abuses?
Aside from deterrence, a main reason to expose abuses is to inform the public worldwide about abuses that governments often try to keep hidden and, where possible, to inform the public in countries where those abuses are committed. This tends to affect the reputations of the governments responsible. There is little prospect of holding them accountable in any other way. But almost every government values its good name. And high officials seek prestige.
China’s Xi Jinping has become the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. He has taken steps to ensure that his rule will be lifelong. Students in China study Xi Jinping thought. And yet, as he may realize, the U.N. report on the persecution of the Uyghurs is likely to become part of the permanent historical record of his rule. It will make it more difficult to rewrite the history of contemporary China as it is presented to the world. Over time, it may also affect the way that history is presented within China.
The headline on a Sept. 2 New York Times story on the U.N. report was “Vindication for Uyghurs in U.N. Report on China Abuse.” That reflects another purpose of naming and shaming. The victims of gross abuses of human rights, and members of their families, do not want to suffer in silence. They want the world to know about their suffering. In the many years that I took testimony from victims in countries all over the world, I never encountered one who refused to talk to me. They wanted their stories known.
Naming and shaming also plays a part in international relations. At meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, some governments may attempt to follow up the report by establishing a Commission of Inquiry to probe more deeply; or by resolutions to require China to provide compensation to victims of abuses; or by adopting measures to condemn those abuses. China will engage in an intense global campaign to head off or defeat such resolutions and to see to it that they obtain as little support as possible. The report on the Uyghurs will greatly exacerbate China’s difficulties. Also, individual Uyghurs will use the report in asylum hearings in many countries to help establish that they have a well-founded fear of persecution if they are forced to return to China.
In his book, Snyder proposes a number of alternative strategies for ameliorating the treatment of the Uyghurs. One is “to wait for long-term structural evolution to turn China into a rule of law democracy….” A second is “to work more actively to create incentives and preconditions for a rights based social order through processes of international economic exchange.” Another is “to wait for China’s…private entrepreneurs” to make common cause with politicians to improve “the functioning of a liberal economic order.” And so on.
“Eventually,” Snyder writes, “the Chinese middle class, once it gets bigger and more confident may realize it was a mistake to jump on the Xi bandwagon, and they may look for a chance to jump off. The most likely catalyst would be a leadership succession struggle or economic crisis in which a reform faction reaches out to a wider circle of support.”
As hardly needs pointing out, not many Uyghurs would be satisfied by this alternative approach. Naming and shaming is not as effective as I would like or as most of my colleagues in the international human rights movement would like. If it were supplemented by the development of a reliable system of international legal remedies for grave abuses of rights, such as many of us have sought to develop over the past few decades, its effectiveness would be greatly enhanced.
In the absence of such remedies in all but a few circumstances, we must rely on our capacity as a global movement to make powerful leaders aware that their abusive practices — whether in Ukraine, Myanmar, Managua, Burundi, Kabul or Xinjiang — will be documented and publicized. I don’t think there is much likelihood that the rights movement will abandon its commitment to naming and shaming because of the criticism that approach is getting from detractors in academic circles.