Origins and use:
This phrase was incorporated in the original title of China’s draft resolution presented to the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 on “Promoting the International Human Rights Cause through Win-Win Cooperation”. That wording was so contentious that China ultimately changed it to “Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights”.
Nevertheless, the phrase has since appeared in two white papers China has published in recent years: “Progress in Human Rights over the 40 Years of Reform and Opening Up of China” in 2018 and “Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China” in 2019.
The phrase also featured in a letter signed by 37 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America in July 2019, which defended China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang, and praised instead its contribution to the “international human rights cause”. The letter was issued in direct response to 22 mainly European countries that called on China to stop the mass detention of members of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.
Yet this phrase is not as straightforward as it seems. “Human rights cause” is, in fact, the English translation of a Chinese expression that is commonly used to refer to “human rights” generally. The lack of a direct, unambiguous translation contributes to the false sense that human rights are abstract and open to interpretation when, in reality, human rights are a clearly defined legal concept and one of the three pillars of the United Nations, alongside development and security.
Implications for human rights:
Categorizing human rights as a “cause”, in the sense of a principle, ideal or goal, detracts from the fact that human rights are a set of well-established and highly developed legal obligations. It almost implies that human rights are open to discretion, in effect something optional for the state to “take up” should it so choose.
The preamble of the UN Charter suggests that human rights are, to some extent, the very raison d’être for the UN’s existence. Human rights have been enshrined in global, regional and national law and standards. They are protected, implemented and constantly developed by global, regional and national institutions.
The use of the phrase “international human rights cause” risks presenting human rights as a fuzzy concept that has yet to be fully determined and defined, rather than one firmly grounded in international law and increasingly defined over more than 70 years.