Origins and use:
This principle was laid out in Article 2 of the 1945 UN Charter explicitly for the newly founded organization, which states that nothing in the Charter “shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction”, unless there are serious threats to international peace, breaches of the peace or acts of aggression. The same principle is recognized for the relation between states.
Nine years later, China incorporated this concept into an agreement with India regarding trade with Tibet. The 1954 agreement also introduced the principles of modern-day Chinese foreign policy: “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”, “mutual non-aggression”, “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”, “equality and cooperation for mutual benefit” and “peaceful coexistence”.
The so-called “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” were subsequently written into the preamble of the Chinese constitution and incorporated into treaties between China and many of its Asian neighbours. More recently, President Xi Jinping referred to “no interference in internal affairs” as part of China’s “five no” approach to Africa, in his opening address of the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (see also below).
China has relied on the Five Principles to offer a specific vision for the world, one in which the equal sovereignty of all states, large or small, wealthy or developing, in the Global North or the Global South, is paramount. But China has also co-opted the principle of non-interference to reject proposals aimed at improving human rights in the country.
In 2018, China rejected 62 recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council following the country’s Universal Periodic Review. In doing so, it not only disagreed with the findings of the Council but also criticized the findings as interfering in China’s sovereignty and internal affairs. Most of these recommendations addressed China’s continued use of the death penalty, restrictions on individual freedoms or the subjugation of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.
Implications for human rights:
With its permanent membership on the UN Security Council and its regular seats on other UN bodies, such as the Human Right Council, China is in a powerful position to push its priorities and reject or counter actions that conflict with its “non-inference” objectives.
As well as using the principle of “non-interference” to reject criticism of its own human rights violations, China applies this principle when doing business in other countries. Therefore countries with poor human rights records can be confident that Chinese state-owned enterprises operating in their territory will turn a blind eye to any abuses committed there.
“Non-interference” in the extreme leads to the powerlessness of the international community to improve or even criticize the human rights conditions in any given country. Impunity for human rights violations will flourish if outside attempts to address abuses are dismissed out of hand as “interference in internal affairs”. The international human rights system exists precisely because states often fail in their duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and because ending grave violations of human rights is a concern and an obligation of the international community as a whole. People who do not have genuine access to effective domestic systems for redress and accountability must be able to appeal to institutions beyond their government’s control. Institutions that represent international law, like the UN, should be able to step in when governments are failing to protect, or actively violating, the rights of the people under their control.