Authoritarian influence in multilateral institutions is growing rapidly and poses a serious threat to democratic and human rights principles. Repressive governments have worked to undermine mechanisms that are meant to ensure accountability for human rights abuses and to transform the United Nations, its related bodies, and other international institutions into fora for mutual praise. Both the Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin are working to subvert human rights norms on the international stage, peddle favorable narratives, and oppose resolutions examining their poor human rights records. Democratic societies must rally behind the global human rights system and ensure that it remains capable of assisting activists and victims around the world.
In a new report for the International Forum for Democratic Studies, Dr. Rana Siu Inboden, a senior fellow with the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at The University of Texas at Austin, examines how authoritarian regimes exploit multilateral institutions to further their illiberal goals and how democracies can work together to uphold the system and hold abusers accountable.
On Monday, July 10, the International Forum hosted a public event marking the launch of this report, featuring the report author. Click here to view the event recording.
In an exclusive article for Just Security, report author Rana Siu Inboden answers the question: How can democracies go on offense against authoritarian powers bent on hollowing out the global human rights system, including the UNHRC? Read the article here!
RESPONDING TO AUTHORITARIAN INFLUENCE
It is in the vital interest of democratic societies to rally behind the global human rights system and ensure that it remains capable of assisting activists and victims around the world, even in the most repressive environments. A robust response from democracies could be built around the following steps:
- Maximize democratic membership and leave no seats uncontested. To better guard the UN Human Rights Council membership and democratic principles, countries with a proven commitment to democracy should be encouraged to run as often as they can, so that the ballot always features candidates with strong human rights records. Moreover, democratic states should coordinate and plan several cycles ahead to take advantage of key elections and commit to campaign for one another.
- Work together with a broad range of countries to advance shared goals. In order to spur collaboration among supporters of human rights, democratic states should make a concerted effort to build cross-regional alliances and identify initiatives that can attract a diverse range of partners. In addition, they should look to form nimble, flexible groupings that address narrower but highly salient topics, such as electoral integrity or civil society participation.
- Build partnerships with more democratic Like-Minded Group (LMG) states to reduce authoritarian influence. Democracies should make a special effort to cultivate diverse coalitions dedicated to issues that are of interest to developing nations within the LMG, including racism, inequality, and climate change. Such action would help counteract efforts by Beijing and its authoritarian partners to create divisions between wealthier democracies and the developing world, and it would discredit LMG arguments about Western “human rights imperialism.”
- Mobilize transnational civil society networks to drive a democratic agenda. Civil society activists and human rights organizations from the developing world should be engaged directly, and democratic governments should invest resources to build the capacity and expertise of such partners, enabling them to track and report on authoritarian influence within the global human rights system and develop innovative responses.
- Develop new tools to document and expose authoritarian attacks on accountability mechanisms. Given the ways in which repressive governments have worked to shield one another from existing human rights mechanisms, states that are committed to upholding human rights should develop and deploy new monitoring tools that can put a spotlight on efforts to evade accountability. A similar reporting mechanism could be dedicated to the recent upsurge in incidents of transnational repression.
- Muster resources and political will to match the magnitude of the authoritarian challenge. Authoritarian regimes devote considerable resources, energy, and attention to subverting multilateral institutions that are designed to uphold human rights and democratic principles. In order to uphold democratic principles in international institutions, the world’s democracies must match and exceed authoritarian investments, political will, and diplomatic energy and can do so by incorporating their democracy support funding into a long-term strategy.
Without a vigorous democratic response, PRC, Kremlin, and other authoritarian influence in multilateral institutions is likely to grow significantly, and LMG arguments could persuade an increasing number of countries to join in the debilitation of the international human rights system. The UN human rights system is worth defending because of the moral weight it carries, the accountability it provides for repressive governments, and its ability to inspire local activists. By taking the initiative, competing for positions in multilateral bodies, forging coalitions across regions and development levels, cultivating civil society networks, and investing in long-term diplomatic campaigns, democratic states would dramatically improve the outlook for global human rights mechanisms and for the expansion of human freedom.
About The Author
Dr. Rana Siu Inboden is a senior fellow with the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at The University of Texas at Austin. She serves as a consultant on human rights, democracy and rule of law projects in Asia for a number of nongovernmental organizations and conducts research related to international human rights, Chinese foreign policy, the effectiveness of international human rights and democracy projects and authoritarian collaboration in the United Nations. Her first book, China and the International Human Rights Regime (Cambridge, 2021) examines China’s role in the international human rights regime between 1982 and 2017. Dr. Inboden holds a DPhil from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University.