Origins and use:
President Xi Jinping used his January 2021 speech at the World Economic Forum, “Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light Humanity’s Way Forward”, to present his vision of a new form of multilateralism. Addressing the virtual gathering, Xi summarized the UN Charter as containing “the basic and universally recognized norms governing state-to-state relations”. Conspicuously absent was any mention of the Charter’s references to human rights, including in the preamble, where “the peoples of the United Nations … reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights [and] in the dignity and worth of the human person”.
Instead Xi used the address to reject a model of multilateralism that he characterized as a pretext for acts of unilateralism and an “order given by one or the few”. His vision was of a system of international governance based on consensus rather than “the strong bullying the weak”. He also reinforced his belief in the danger of states “meddling in other countries’ internal affairs”, arguing that the uniqueness of each country’s history, cultural and social system meant that “none is superior to the other”.
The model of “multilateralism” advocated by Xi reflects China’s values and priorities as they relate to human rights. This model privileges national sovereignty and does not accept any outside criticism of the internal affairs of states. It professes a belief that responsibility for respecting, protecting and fulfilling people’s human rights rests with governments as an “internal affair”, with no role for the international community to assess if and how human rights are being upheld or to hold governments accountable for their failure to do so.
At the same time as redefining multilateralism, China has also sought to use existing multilateral institutions, including the UN, to fend off criticism of its human rights record. For example, China scored what it saw as a victory in July 2020 at the UN Human Rights Council, when 53 countries came out in support of its recently passed national security law for Hong Kong, which imposes harsh penalties for political crimes, while a smaller number supported a UK-led statement criticizing the law.
Implications for human rights:
In practice, despite Xi’s lofty references to “universally recognized norms”, China’s version of “multilateralism” is a selective acceptance of international rules and international mechanisms for the enforcement of those rules. It is an attempt to redefine the current global governance system, which is supposed to be rules-based and to respect human rights. Beijing’s alternative vision is a system in which countries negotiate issues such as human rights through political and diplomatic channels, instead of following common standards and using agreed international forums.
One clear example of China’s selective approach is its general rejection of international judicial dispute mechanisms, such as the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the International Criminal Court. Another is the Chinese government’s position challenging the jurisdiction of an arbitration tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, following a case brought by the Philippines in 2013 against China’s assertion of rights in the South China Sea.
By rejecting law-based global governance institutions like the ICJ, China opens the door to a selective application and enforcement of human rights norms, especially in countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America, where China is investing in controversial projects in the fossil fuel, transportation and infrastructure sectors.