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Great power manipulation riddles United Nations

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Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of Palestine speaks at an emergency special session of the United Nations General Assembly on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas at U.N. headquarters in New York City, United States, 26 October 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar),

In Brief

In October 2023, Russia and China made headlines due to their actions in the United Nations (UN). The UN Security Council rejected a Russia-sponsored resolution on Gaza that did not mention Hamas. Moscow failed to return to the UN Human Rights Council after being expelled in April 2022 because of its invasion of Ukraine.


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China voted with Russia on the Gaza resolution, but unlike its Russian counterpart, was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council in October 2023 for another three-year term. While evidence points to a decline in Russian influence — and despite resistance efforts from various organisations to curb Beijing’s behaviour — both countries will persevere.

Part of the reason for this is embedded in the ‘path dependence’ of the UN. Now approaching 80 years old, the organisation was created for a different era. Attempts at reform failed because countries searching for additional status and prestige, such as India and Japan, did not collaborate. Regional rivals with similar ambitions blocked previous reform attempts . The G4 initiative, comprised of Germany, Japan, India and Brazil, shows little promise in the short term.

Russia and China understand that long-term strategies are far more effective than short-term reform advocacy. China’s strategy at the UN has been to build alliances based on economic development while engaging in multi-pronged efforts to mute criticism of its human rights record.

For example, imports from Africa rose to US$282 billion in 2022, while Chinese exports reached US$164 billion. Africa has become a vital part of Chinese foreign policy and a key UN voting bloc. China has also actively courted Russia, though behaviour by mercenary groups like the Wagner group has given both Chinese and African leaders cause for alarm.

China does not seek to advance a human rights agenda. Its goal is to mute criticism and implement reforms that advance its own national agenda. This was evident in Beijing’s efforts to dilute the UN High Commission for Human Rights’ report on Xinjiang and surround the former UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet with propaganda in 2022.

To understand China’s long-term strategy, critics must go back to the creation of the UN Human Rights Council in 2006. During the negotiations for the new body’s creation, discrete Chinese diplomatic efforts helped lower the bar for council membership. This explains why states with questionable human rights records, such as Cuba, Vietnam and Qatar have been able to win seats.

Russia also works the UN system to its advantage. Since rules within the UN Security Council evolve slowly, Moscow assumed the monthly presidency in March 2023. True to its aim of advancing its own strategic agenda, Russia used its role to hold briefings on military weapon export bans and debates on the effectiveness of multilateralism.

Moscow understands the UN’s path dependence and manipulates it for short-term gain. It recognises that its veto power in the UN Security Council forces other UN member states to move to the less powerful UN General Assembly to introduce non-binding resolutions on its war in Ukraine. Despite the passage of the February 2023 resolution, it also used its flawed but effective partnership with China to dilute the vote. Among the abstentions were many of China’s critical African voting bloc members.

China’s attempts to create a new international order, which includes fundamental changes in the UN’s governance, will require an effective long-term strategy by Western-aligned countries to counter Chinese diplomacy. For example, because of fluctuations in US foreign policy and relaxed approach to meeting its UN dues, China’s financial influence has grown. When China asserts pressure, the West must counter with action. The same is true for a lack of significant presence in Africa, where apart from Japan’s long-standing Tokyo International Conference on African Development initiative, attention has been lacking.

The abuse of the UN system by great powers is nothing new. Yet the international order’s integrity is in peril when these abuses are not countered with effective responses by the actors such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France. This is made even more difficult when the United States has also engaged in the same self-serving abuse in its 2003 invasion of Iraq and in its recent veto of a resolution on humanitarian aid to Gaza.

An effective counterstrategy should be multifaceted and resilient to the distractions that changes in inter-regional political stability may pose. As the 2023 escalation of the IsraelPalestine conflict has demonstrated, without discipline, efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and contain Chinese aggression all but pause. To counter growing Chinese and Russian influence in the UN, the United States, the European Union and their Asian allies must also learn to play the long game, uphold the international order and preserve the integrity of international human rights mechanisms.

Mark S Cogan is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University.

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