The universality of human rights undermined

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“Protect the individual against the enormous power of the state.” For the president of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), Fijian Nazhat Shameem Khan, this is the very essence of human rights.

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The return of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to the HRC is positive, but it is not without risk. Instead of being the forum where states work together to strengthen fundamental rights, the HRC could become hostage to ideological and geopolitical confrontations on the planet.

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We can see it through the Rohingya crisis in Burma, the Uighurs in Xinjiang, opponents of Bashar al-Assad in Syria: faced with regimes where the central power pays little attention to the individual, the defense of human rights must remain a central objective of the CDH. But also for liberal democracies, whose raison d’être is based on fundamental freedoms which allow the individual to flourish in a democratic framework. In this sense, the offensive carried out last week in Geneva by several Western countries to castigate the way in which China is repressing the Muslim minority in Xinjiang is to be welcomed.

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This last example nevertheless raises a question that seems to be squaring the circle: how to promote a fierce defense of human rights and at the same time seek to deepen its commercial ties with Beijing? Germany and the United Kingdom, who want to continue to exchange closely with the second economic power on the planet while denouncing, last week, the repression of the Uighurs, seem to show that both are possible. For democratic countries, capitulating to economic prospects alone to the detriment of human rights would be a way of denying themselves. The argument obviously concerns Switzerland, whose foreign economic relations are the guarantors of its prosperity.

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This raises the degree of weighting of economic, social and cultural rights on the one hand and civil and political rights on the other. China has championed the former. She prides herself on having lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty. But at the same time, it is killing any pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Western democracies insist on political freedoms, but fail to pay sufficient attention to the socio-economic inequalities that are beginning to plague them. This opposition becomes dangerous within the CDH. We have to admit it: the indivisibility and universality of human rights are increasingly undermined.

To go further, also read our other articles on the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council: