The U.S. government’s decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council has dealt a blow to Chinese rights activists and dissidents, who relied on its support, rights groups and activists said.
The Human Rights Council was created by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006 as the U.N.’s top human rights body, but the participation of persistent rights violators such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela have drawn strong criticism from activists.
Nevertheless, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the council plays a vital role in addressing serious rights abuses around the world.
And the U.S. absence on the council will likely benefit regimes like China, by removing one of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's critics.
"The U.S. withdrawal risks emboldening countries like China, and other actors that regularly seek to undermine U.N. human rights mechanisms," HRW said in a statement on its website.
“By walking away, the U.S. is turning its back not just on the U.N., but on victims of human rights abuses around the world," the statement quoted executive director Kenneth Roth as saying.
"Now other governments will have to redouble their efforts to ensure that the council addresses the world’s most serious human rights problems."
HRW's China director Sophie Richardson said the move was "highly problematic" for human rights in China.
"The U.S. could still have a lot of positive impact, in spite of the fact that the U.N. Human Rights Council has been far from perfect lately," she said.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, which represents the ethnic minority Uyghur group overseas, agreed.
"I think the U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council is highly regrettable," Raxit told RFA. "We are very worried that it will leave China with even more room for maneuver on the council."
"We are also concerned that nobody will pay attention to the human rights situation of Uyghurs any more," he said.
But Beijing-based activist Hu Jia said he has mixed feelings about the decision.
"These sorts of sneaky tricks and opportunism is exactly what the Chinese Communist Party is best at," Hu said. "Now they have taken their lies to the limit, and everything has become tainted by their deception."
"Wherever the U.S. leaves the slightest power vacuum, Beijing is very happy to benefit," he said. "That includes human rights: President Xi Jinping is only too happy to fill in the blanks, and create a new world order centered on the Communist Party."
Concern in Taiwan
In Taiwan, rights groups have similar fears about losing a key ally on the council.
Eeling Chiu, who heads the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, said the move could affect the democratic island's ability to drum up international support for Lee Ming-cheh, a Taiwanese rights activist and NGO worker jailed by mainland China for inciting "subversion" of the Chinese Communist Party via social media.
"Now there will be one less country willing to stand up and criticize China's human rights situation," Chiu said. "That includes the case of Lee Ming-cheh. We have lost an ally to help us speak out about this issue."
And Yang Sen-hong, president of the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, said the council will likely now be dominated by Beijing and its allies.
"The U.N. Human Rights Council is now controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, and only exists as a cosmetic exercise for China and its supporters," Yang said. "They will regard any condemnation as mere mosquito bites now. It'll be pointless."
He said he could understand the U.S. decision, however.
"Trump is a practical man, and he doesn't want to be seen consorting with these types. It's that simple," he said.
A correct decision
Meanwhile, veteran Chinese rights activist Liu Qing, a director of Human Rights in China, said he supported the U.S. withdrawal for similar reasons.
"I think that this decision ... was totally correct, and that they should have done it a long time ago," Liu told RFA. "The ... council has been nothing but a forum for oppressive regimes to twist the facts for some time now."
HRIC has previously warned that China has been mounting a systematic campaign at the U.N. to undermine the existing human rights system.
China has advocated a “state-centric” and “governance” approach to human rights that rejects the “universality” of human rights—that all human beings are entitled to a set of fundamental rights and freedoms, the foundational principle of the international human rights system, the group said in March.
The U.S. had been the sole detractor in a vote on a motion brought by Beijing in the council, promoting its idea of a “cooperative mechanism” that ensures “equal treatment of all States” and “mutually beneficial cooperation” among states.
"In other words ... a system of international human rights that essentially marginalizes rights for the individual," HRIC said.
The resolution passed with 28 yes votes, 17 abstentions, and just one no vote, from the U.S.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said the decision to leave the Human Rights Council was taken in part because of its “chronic bias against Israel”.
The United States’ commitment to human rights would not allow it to remain part of a “hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights”, she said.
Reported by Xi Wang and Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.