10. “People-centred” approach to human rights

Origins and use:

China’s 2019 white paper, “Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China”, refers to “forming a system of human rights with a people-centred approach”. The phrase also appears in UN Human Rights Council resolutions 41/19 and 35/21, which address the “contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights”.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a speech at the UN Human Rights Council on 22 February 2021, setting out “A People-centred Approach for Global Human Rights Progress”. He argued that “the people’s interests are where the human rights cause starts and ends”. However, it is unclear who determines what those interests are, although the implicit answer seems to be the Chinese Communist Party.


Implications for human rights:

“People” has traditionally been used by China as a political category, that is to say the (class-based) population that the Chinese Communist Party purports to represent. As such, the Chinese government has always been able to define who “the people” are and what “the people” want, need or deserve.

This implies that “people” as defined by states have rights, but “enemies of the people” as defined by states – or persons otherwise somehow deemed not to be part of the collective or conforming to its norms – do not.

It gives economic development and other “group” interests a higher priority than the freedoms of individuals.

Contrary to first impressions, this phrase heavily implies that a “people-centred approach to human rights” is very much led and designed by state authorities – rather than in actual consultation with “the people” – in order to benefit state authorities.

Resolutions calling for countries to realize “people-centred development of the people, by the people and for the people” do not sufficiently recognize the obligations of states under international human rights law to devote all available resources and means to respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for all.