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China, the UN and Human Protection Rosemary Foot

Beliefs, Power and the International Image

We are seeing an increase of interest, from both scholars and policymakers, in the institutions designed to enhance our protective capacity. ‘Human protection’, a phrase used by UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon in his 2011 Cyril Foster Lecture here at Oxford, covers such topics as the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) individuals from mass atrocity crimes, and modes of accountability for large-scale human rights abuses. The UN Security Council’s understanding of how global insecurity is generated has noticeably widened since the 1990s, and UN resolutions dealing with humanitarian disasters have been passed under mandatory Chapter VII UN Charter provisions.

The fact that Beijing is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, coupled with China’s increased market power and ability and willingness to provide global public goods, makes the study of Beijing’s approach to these protections essential. The Chinese leadership frequently asserts its reverence for the UN system and Charter, but it is only by focusing on its behaviour that we can assess how it is delivering that support. Human protection is one of the areas that has led Beijing into a more activist stance. The leadership has chosen the United Nations as a primary site for exercising its influence, using its Security Council position and power of veto to influence and shape the Council’s agenda, the resolutions that it puts forward, and the way that new and old treaties and norms should be conceived, interpreted and implemented.

China’s increasing strength as both a political and economic actor has significantly increased its potential to influence global governance. It has slowly gained better representation and a greater voice in governance arrangements, and it has also made larger material contributions in finance and personnel. In terms of human protection, Beijing has become more vocal in articulating what it regards as the most productive path to human well-being and the responsibilities that its new status carries in promoting that path, as well as the benefits that multilateral institutional policies (or, at least, those instigated by Beijing) bring. Beijing has also called for a new era in ‘Great Power’ relations – one where its interests and values are recognised as legitimate and deserving of respect. It asserts these desires more forcefully under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who has pushed for the image of China as a developing country to be replaced by one of a ‘responsible great power.’

My latest research project focuses, therefore, on how China is affecting the UN’s approach to human protection. As part of its larger aims, the study considers the degree to which China is challenging liberal elements of the global order. More specifically, a core objective of this study is to explore how a more powerful China satisfies its desire to shape global norms relating to human protection in ways that reflect its ideological beliefs, and, as it would prefer, in such a way as to bolster its image as a responsible great power. I ask how Beijing can both influence the conversation in ways that are seen by other significant players – domestic as well as international – as appropriate, and yet at the same time how the leadership pushes back when ideas around human protection come into conflict with the ideological beliefs the Chinese government wishes to see promoted and protected.

The study’s argument relies on three underlying assumptions: first, that the idea of human protection clashes with the Chinese view that the security of the state and political regime is of greater import than the security of the individual. Second, the study assumes that Beijing’s ideological beliefs in this area are sufficiently coherent and well-articulated that they can provide signposts for policy direction and promote understanding of Beijing’s wants outside of China itself. And, third, that China does care about creating or maintaining a positive international image for both domestic and external reasons.

Human protection appeals to universalist, cosmopolitan principles and this global norm has been expressed and advanced at the same time as China has grown in power. Beijing now has an enhanced ability to protect its preferences for state-based pluralism and difference. My research seeks to uncover how and why China is pursuing its UN agenda, in the hope that we can better understand what that means for the future of human protection.

Rosemary Foot is Senior Research Fellow in International Relations and Emeritus Fellow, St Antony's College

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Photo Credit: edgarwinkler - "UN flag internationality"

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