(This article is adapted from the newly released report “Defending the Global Human Rights System from Authoritarian Assault: How Democracies Can Retake the Initiative,” published by the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.)

Authoritarian States are on the offensive within the world’s multilateral institutions, and it is time to play more than just defense against them. This network of States is working to roll back democratic and human rights principles at the United Nations, affiliated bodies like the World Health Organization, crucial intergovernmental agencies such as Interpol, and regional groupings including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Using their seats on the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in particular, repressive governments have attempted to undermine mechanisms that are meant to ensure accountability for rights abuses. Working off a shared playbook, they are hijacking the international human rights system and transforming the Council itself into a forum for mutual praise and anemic dialogue.   

It took half a century for the international community to develop this system of foundational human rights treaties and mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement, but without a robust response from democratic societies, it could take dictators only a few years to break them. To avoid such an outcome, democratic States should renew their commitment to the architecture they helped to construct, energize their human rights diplomacy in multilateral settings, and proactively strengthen their own cooperation to match that of their authoritarian opponents, especially within and across regions. I discuss a set of actions that can and should be taken below. 

The Stakes are High for the International Human Rights System 

The value of the international human rights regime should not be underestimated. Established liberal democracies may have their own safeguards for fundamental rights, but many nations lack domestic checks on abuse of power, and the international system serves as both a source of inspiration and a venue of last resort for citizens seeking justice and protection. What’s more, international bodies have been critical in shaping ideas about the frontiers of human rights and catalyzing improvements in shared global standards. For example, individual U.N. resolutions on torture helped generate the political will that led to the adoption of the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in the 1980s and its optional protocol in 2002. Those efforts have made the resort to torture a global taboo.

If authoritarian influence is allowed to proliferate in multilateral institutions, fragile democracies will be at greater risk of backsliding in their domestic practices, and any democratic countries that still adhere to their core values will find themselves under pressure and increasingly isolated on the world stage. 

The rising phenomenon of transnational repression, in which authoritarian regimes reach beyond their own borders to suppress dissent among exiles and diaspora communities abroad, should alert even the most robust democracies to the fact they would not remain secure at home in an international environment dominated or significantly shaped by autocrats. The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has added yet more urgency to the challenge, as was vividly illustrated this April when Moscow was allowed to assume the monthly presidency of the U.N. Security Council even as its leadership stood accused of ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Take China’s atrocities in Xinjiang as another example. Then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a damning report on the Chinese Communist Party’s potential atrocities in Xinjiang last August with hours left in her tenure. But her effort stalled out. The U.N. Human Rights Council went to a vote on whether to open debate on the topic. China’s diplomats in Geneva and in capitals placed effective pressure on its authoritarian allies and smaller democracies inside a newly formed bloc to deliver a vote against opening debate. The result was 19 States voted to reject debate, 17 voted to advance it, and 11 decided to abstain completely.  

Currently, the Human Rights Council is holding its 53rd regular session, for which the agenda includes a special session on Sudan, work of the commission of inquiry into wartime atrocities in Ukraine, and resolutions referencing the Iranian regime’s crackdown on protestors. Beyond the diplomacy around these critical issues, democracies need a clearer picture of what’s happening by – and increasingly between –  authoritarian governments eager to collaborate and ultimately undermine this system of accountability. 

Authoritarians are Working Together to Undermine the System 

A chief vehicle for authoritarian cooperation at the Council is the Like-Minded Group (LMG). It consists primarily of authoritarian nations, but is also joined by a swath of Global South countries.  The LMG has grown to roughly fifty States, with China, Russia, Egypt, South Africa, Cuba, Venezuela, and Pakistan usually acting as key organizers. The group is voluntary, informal, and malleable. As I outline in a National Endowment for Democracy report, the LMG  “consistently prioritizes sovereignty over international monitoring, even in cases of gross human rights violations; chips away at the universality of human rights by insisting on the importance of unique national circumstances; and emphasizes technical assistance and capacity building at the expense of genuine accountability.” While not all LMG members fit neatly into the highly repressive camp, many of them endorse the regressive positions above, are drawn to the group out of solidarity based on “anti-imperialist” standpoint and a sustained view of having been repeatedly wronged by “the West.” 

The group also acts as a mutual defense network, shielding each other from human rights scrutiny. When an LMG member receives pressure for its actions at the UNHRC, fellow members often close ranks. They often flood the proceedings with favorable assessments and platitudes. In 2022, despite their alleged war crimes in Yemen, the Saudi Arabia and UAE delegations recruited sufficient votes to ultimately secure passage of a toothless resolution that focused on mere technical assistance and capacity building. 

Paradoxically, the resources and diplomatic energy that authoritarian States dedicate to this collaboration is a reminder of the Council’s potential power. These fora protect vulnerable individuals and civil society activists that have experienced the weaponization of state apparatuses against them and suppression of their voices. Democracies and civil society organizations have the potential to neutralize these advances by authoritarians and reenergize ßthe mandates of institutions like the Council. 

How Democracies Can Retake the Initiative 

When governments that are committed to defending and advancing freedom take the initiative and remain unified, they are able to resuscitate human rights work in multilateral institutions and sharpen scrutiny of repressive States.  A coordinated, more purposeful democratic agenda to preserve and ultimately strengthen the institutions like the Council is needed.  

  • Leave no election uncontested. China and Russia’s efforts are aided by the strong presence of other authoritarian member states on the Council. Countries with a proven commitment to democracy should be encouraged to run as often as they can so that the ballot always features candidates with strong human rights records. Democratic States should coordinate and plan several cycles ahead to take advantage of key elections and commit to campaign for one another, such as elections that fill roles on human rights treaty bodies and Special Procedure openings. 
  • Attract a more diverse, cross-regional range of partners. Democracies should cultivate diverse coalitions – beyond existing ones among advanced, Western democracies – dedicated to issues that are of interest to developing nations within the LMG, such as racism, inequality, and climate change. This would counteract efforts by Beijing and its authoritarian partners to create divisions between wealthier democracies and the developing world, and it would discredit LMG arguments about Western “human rights imperialism.”  
  • Mobilize transnational civil society networks to drive a democratic agenda. Civil society activists and human rights organizations from the developing world should be engaged directly, and democratic governments should invest resources to build the capacity and expertise of such partners, enabling them to track and report on authoritarian influence within the global human rights system and develop innovative responses, and to hold their own governments accountable.  
  • Develop new tools to document and expose authoritarian attacks on accountability mechanisms. Given the ways in which repressive governments have worked to shield one another from existing human rights mechanisms, States that are committed to upholding human rights should develop and deploy new monitoring tools that can put a spotlight on efforts to evade accountability. A similar reporting mechanism could be dedicated to the recent upsurge in incidents of transnational repression, a new method authoritarian leaders use to silence opponents and deter opposition to their goals in multilateral fora. 

The U.N. human rights system is worth defending because of the moral weight it carries, the accountability it can often provide for repressive governments, and its ability to inspire local activists. Defending the system in practice, though, requires a far more assertive and fresh strategy. The problem within the international system needs to be further exposed, alongside a coordinated offensive strategy to counteract it.

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