China's appointment to a United Nations human rights panel where it will play a key role in picking the world body's human rights investigators has sparked concern among activists and academics, with one observer saying it was "like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief".
China's delegate, Jiang Duan, was last week appointed to the United Nations Human Rights Council consultative group for the Asia Pacific region, a body that vets and recommends candidates who investigate, monitor, and publicly report on either specific country situations or on thematic issues such as freedom of speech, religion and access to healthcare.
"Allowing China's oppressive and inhumane regime to choose the world investigators on freedom of speech, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based group that monitors the 47-nation UN rights council.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said that based on the Chinese government's "well-documented, ongoing efforts to obstruct and undermine UN human rights mechanisms, the appointment of a Chinese diplomat to the [panel] is a concern".
It will require increased vigilance from other members and the Human Rights Council president, she said, “and we will be watching closely for new efforts to weaken these key human rights tools”.
While the representative formally serves in a personal capacity, Ms Richardson said “we struggle to imagine” that a diplomat serving Xi Jinping’s government would be allowed to make a distinction between the government’s position and his or her own.
The Chinese government routinely opposes country rapporteurs, she added, “so it’s also tough to imagine how its representative can be relied on to recommend the best people to implement those mandates effectively”.
Yu-Jie Chen, a fellow at University of Hong Kong’s law faculty, said with the new appointment China can now “manipulate” the expert selection process by boosting certain candidates and excluding others.
"China has always disliked criticisms of these independent experts, which it gets a lot, and has tried to constrain their practice and investigation," she said. "People are right to worry that Beijing will be eager to undermine this important human rights mechanism with its new influence."
Mr Neuer pointed to documented cases of forcibly disappeared citizens in China and upwards of one million Muslim Uighurs and other minority group members in Xinjiang camps, calling it "inconceivable" that China be allowed to influence the selection of the next member of the UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances.
“How can China be involved in choosing the UN special rapporteur on the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, when the regime routinely imposes draconian censorship, and seeks to shut down dissenting voices?” asked Mr Neuer.
"And as the world is suffering from the deadly coronavirus pandemic that spread like wildfire in Wuhan while China silenced doctors, journalists and other citizens who tried to sound the alarm, by what logic can the Beijing regime be involved in choosing the UN's next global monitor on the right to health?"
“But hope is not lost,” according to Ms Chen, as while council panel members can try to manipulate nominations “they cannot dominate” as there is a process in place in which other governments and NGOs “can push back” if they are dissatisfied with candidates.
Ms Richardson also pointed to “a number of safeguards built into the process” where decisions are usually taken by all five members on a panel; members are expected to recuse themselves from deliberations concerning any nominee of the same nationality; and the president and the council itself can veto recommendations.
In recent years, the independent human rights experts who have been selected “have done an admirable job scrutinising governments”, Ms Chen said.
“But it’s a tough time for them and for civil society. The current politics in the Human Rights Council – in which China and its allies of authoritarian and developing governments outnumber democracies – make it harder to defend the system,” she said.
Critical of this situation, the US left the council in 2018, with then-UN ambassador Nikki Haley calling it "a protector of human rights abusers".
Following the US withdrawal, it has been more difficult for the EU to build cross-regional alliances, Ms Chen said, but she believes that staying in the council is the only viable option for human rights advocates.
“I don’t think finding other venues is a choice for democracies,” she said. “For global rights protection, the UN human rights system is the only game in town. It would be a mistake to give up and just leave.”