Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hostility to cooperation by his government or anyone in China with United Nations human rights institutions and independent experts is well-documented. His diplomats excoriate U.N. human rights officials when they call out Beijing’s violations, blasting experts’ work as a “smear” and as violations of China’s sovereignty, and questioning their integrity. Just in late May, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared the U.N.’s strongest-ever condemnation of Beijing’s human rights record — a detailed report on abuses of Uyghurs, drawing largely on Chinese government documents — as “illegal and void.”

Requests for visits by independent U.N. human rights experts are rarely granted. In 2020, more than 50 U.N. experts, part of the “Special Procedures” system, jointly issued a statement about China’s intransigence, writing, “unlike over 120 States, the Government of China has not issued a standing invitation to UN independent experts to conduct official visits.” And despite “many requests,” they said, the government had only permitted five visits in a decade.

But somehow amid this rule of non-engagement, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures — what most people call sanctions — just undertook a May visit to Beijing and five other Chinese cities. Why? Likely because her legal and political assessment aligns with that of the Chinese government. Giving an imprimatur of U.N. legitimacy, Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan concludes in her end-of-mission analysis that China has been unjustly harmed by human rights-related sanctions.

The conclusion rewards Beijing with another win in its campaign to undermine the credibility of U.N. experts and the global body’s human rights mechanisms. Douhan, in preparing her final report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in September, and the Council itself, which returns for another session on June 18, should reconsider the message of impunity they send to all serial human rights abusers when a major power like China gets away with such a pattern of attacks and manipulation of their mechanisms. And there are a number of steps the Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights can take to address the larger issues.

This particular Special Rapporteur mandate – Douhan is the second to hold the post – was established in 2014, with a resolution sponsored by Iran on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement. The mandate’s title says it all: the “negative impact” of sanctions. Indeed, its final resolution and the renewal just last October, as adopted by the Human Rights Council with China’s support, states outright and controversially: “Unilateral coercive measures and legislation are contrary to international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States.” It goes on to say: “no State may use or encourage the use of any type of measure, including but not limited to economic or political measures, to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure from it advantages of any kind.”

But sanctions have become an important tool in efforts to pressure human rights violators to change their ways. There is a robust body of international law supporting sanctions practice at the national and regional level, practices that find support in the text of the UN Charter itself. While human rights and humanitarian organizations and others have expressed serious concerns about their unintended side effects, and it is clear all sanctions must conform to international law, including international human rights standards this mandate doesn’t appear to be addressing those types of issues.

Broad Claims with Few Facts

Instead, Douhan’s end-of-mission analysis after this trip to China makes broad claims while providing few, if any, facts to support them. Beijing faces sanctions on a number of fronts, from U.S. export controls on technology over fears of fueling its military aggression to penalties by both the United States and the European Union over Xi’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in the western region known as Xinjiang.

In her report, Douhan reiterates the mandate’s controversial premise that all sanctions violate international human rights law, writing, “Unilateral targeted sanctions as a punitive action violate, at the very least, obligations arising from universal and regional human rights instruments.” In one of a number of obvious  contradictions within the report, she asserts that sanctions could not only tank the Chinese economy, but also harm the economies of States dependent on Beijing, yet she provides no citations to independent economic assessments to corroborate such a claim and instead describes the Chinese economy as “strong and diverse” and ranking as the world’s second highest in GDP. She suggests that sanctions have prompted “a significant drop in businesses’ turnovers,” an unclear use of the term “turnover” in business but that in any case would not constitute a human rights violation. It also seems in tension with Chinese state media headlines claiming “robust growth in trade, GDP, laying bare failures of Western crackdown.”

Douhan repeats and therefore lends credence to the Chinese government’s claim that its “poverty alleviation” programs counter terrorism in Xinjiang. She fails to address the substantive analysis of the violations of human rights committed by China as it ostensibly is countering terrorism or “extremism,” including analysis by some of her Special Procedures colleagues. And the report gives no consideration to other researchers’ well-substantiated work showing that precisely those policies are integral to forced labor across the region. She also essentially acknowledges the “absence of a [sic] devastating humanitarian impact” of sanctions but then says that absence “shall not be used as a [sic] grounds for” imposing sanctions.

The report also ignores the findings of other U.N. human rights experts and institutions. There is no reference to the August 2022 report from then-High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet alleging possible crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region. That strong report, which drew heavily on Chinese government sources, was particularly surprising given Bachelet released it just as she was leaving office and several months after being roundly criticized for accepting her own wholly Beijing-controlled tour of China. (Most countries allow U.N. experts and expert working groups fairly free rein to meet with anyone they want and even sometimes grant them rare access, as the United States did for the first visit by a U.N. human rights expert to Guantanamo in June 2023 – though the United States has its own spotty record of cooperation with and excoriation of U.N. institutions.)

Other U.N. experts also have done extensive work on topics related to China, ranging from arbitrary detention to torture (in 2016; Beijing is five years late delivering a required report on torture), in addition to the recent review of the Chinese government’s human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review process, and assessments on a slew of violations by the committees overseeing Beijing’s compliance with human rights treaties. None are reflected in Douhan’s report.

There is no discussion of the widespread and systematic human rights violations that prompted Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States to impose targeted sanctions on specific Chinese officials, government agencies, and companies. Nor does she address the sanctions imposed by the Chinese government on other countries’ government officials, parliamentarians, academics, or activists, even though they are precisely the types of sanctions she decries. I was sanctioned by Beijing in July 2021, and wrote to Douhan ahead of her visit, asking her to raise these kinds of cases during her visit to Beijing, but I received a reply only acknowledging receipt and no follow-up since then).

Other Detailed Analysis

Fortunately, recent work by other U.N. human rights experts prevents Beijing from wholly “blue-washing” its appalling track record. Despite being denied visits to China, U.N. special rapporteurs on free speech, education, assembly and association, human rights defenders, judges and lawyers, and countering terrorism published a detailed analysis in March of the Chinese government’s “Safeguarding National Security Ordinance” imposed on Hong Kong. Its conclusion — that this ordinance violates international human rights law and should be scrapped – should be a model, in that it was reached by methodically assessing the law in relation to Hong Kong’s obligations under human rights treaties. It builds on years of relevant previous work assessing other national security legislation in the territory, and clearly articulates the specific human rights at issue.

U.N. human rights experts are meant to deliver on a substantive mandate critically and free of geopolitical pressures. And while some dismissed Douhan’s assessment as a predictable outcome for a U.N. function funded by Beijing (though the experts themselves are not paid), it’s ultimately the lack of analytical daylight between her and Xi’s agenda that raises concerns. The Hong Kong assessment is a stark but welcome contrast, showing what is possible when those responsibilities are embraced.

Beijing’s sense of impunity at U.N. human rights institutions runs high, enabled in part by visits like Bachelet’s and Douhan’s, and by the failure of the current high commissioner, Volker Turk, to follow through on the grave allegations leveled by his predecessor two years ago. He has yet to brief the Human Rights Council on that report’s findings or more recent developments, commit to gathering evidence of ongoing Chinese government atrocity crimes, or even spend much time with Uyghur victims and survivors.

When the U.N. Human Rights Council goes back into session on June 18, diplomats should press Turk to explain what his office has done to end Xi’s grotesque violations. they should also revisit the recommendations made by the 50-plus human rights experts in June 2020. That criticized Beijing’s hostility towards the U.N. human rights system and urged a special session on and the appointment of a standing mandate to focus on Chinese government human rights violations. And when Douhan presents her final report to the Human Rights Council in September, diplomats should do what people enduring Xi’s neo-totalitarian rule cannot: reject that whitewash and the blue-wash and press for the appointment of individuals genuinely concerned with holding all human rights violators to account.

IMAGE: Policemen are seen outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court in Hong Kong on May 30, 2024, which found 14 people guilty of subversion in the biggest case against pro-democracy campaigners since China imposed a national security law to crush dissent. The 14, along with 31 others who pleaded guilty, could face life in jail, with sentencing expected later this year. (Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)