Intergovernmental organisations are created by treaty to fulfil states’ widely varying objectives. The seventeen United Nations Specialised Agencies are somewhat different. They are intergovernmental organisations which exist in a close relationship with the UN by arrangement with the UN Economic and Social Council. A recent shift has resulted in growing interest in both entities from the People’s Republic of China. This change has occurred in the context of waning US appetite in support of IGOs and to an arguable extent, multilateralism in general. This article concerns two risks to Australian interests which are largely consequences of this transference of organisational power.
One veteran of the international system is the International Criminal Police Organisation, or Interpol. A key organ of Interpol is the thirteen-member Executive Committee. Of the three men who succeeded in last November’s Executive Committee ballot, two newcomers represent successes for notably authoritarian governments. The new Chairman and President is an Interior Ministry official of the United Arab Emirates. Amongst other tasks, Major-General al-Raisi supervises UAE prisons. In that capacity he is allegedly responsible for arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and torture of UAE critics and human rights activists, along with several unfortunate foreigners. Although his elevation carries bleak implications for Interpol’s authority and practices, the election of a second official probably aroused greater apprehension in Canberra. Mr Hu Binchen is a Deputy-General in China’s Ministry of State Security, and his promotion intensifies an existing risk that concerns the “red notice”.
The red notice is in principle a worthy device intended for mutual assistance between states. A referring state’s national central bureau notifies the Interpol Secretariat of the identity of an alleged criminal who has travelled beyond the referring state’s borders. Interpol purports to conduct a review of each notification, although applicable criteria remain unclear. What is clear is that Interpol’s Constitution at Article 3 prohibits any activities of a political nature; and Article 2(1) refers to the parties’ observance of “the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
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When a red notice is issued, details of an alleged offender are conveyed to national central bureaus of the other 194 state parties. Although a referring state usually seeks repatriation, it is important to recognise that a red notice is not a trans-national warrant. States apply their own legal process and substantive law to requests to detain and extradite. A referring state should exercise jurisdiction consistent with internationally accepted principles and possess evidence that may lead to a genuine criminal trial rather than a political prosecution or other sham procedure.
Scores of elected officials in more than a dozen democracies have identified the Chinese government as a notorious abuser of the red notice. Beijing has deliberately misused these notices to pursue, harass and repatriate critics, dissidents and political opponents. Human Rights Watch has identified risks of arbitrary imprisonment, torture and disappearance which await those who suffer the Chinese Communist Party’s ire. An abundance of credible evidence goes much further: Chinese trans-national harassment, blackmail and abductions, combined with threats and violence to family members of targets well beyond China. Much of this misbehaviour clearly entails criminal offences carried out by Chinese state actors (or their agents) within those states in which this wrongdoing has taken place and continues to occur.
Unsurprisingly, this egregious misconduct is a matter of considerable personal interest among former Hong Kong residents, Uyghurs, Tibetans, human rights advocates, dissidents, reformers and sundry emigrants who have sought safety in tolerant democracies. Their new homes include Australia. Whatever the precise nature of their transgressions as asserted by China, the position of an uncertain number of these immigrants is necessarily accompanied by a latent though genuine jeopardy. As demonstrated in several other democracies, it does not matter whether these people are Australian nationals, permanent residents or other visa holders of various types—their families here and overseas remain vulnerable to intimidation and coercion by Chinese operatives. The range of unsavoury consequences which may be inflicted on any of their victims may include an artfully-procured red notice.
The second risk concerns the UN Specialised Agencies. In the field of public international law China holds a state obligation to refrain from directing its civil servants, military forces or various contractors to engage in trans-border cyber-crime. Juxtapose this responsibility with a Chinese trans-border enterprise which has delivered spectacular success over recent years: notorious intellectual property theft through collaboration with major organised crime. The US government in particular has identified persuasive evidence in support of this claim.
China is also infamous for lax enforcement of foreign intellectual property rights within its borders while it enjoys the benefits of international patent protection. As Beijing’s program of digital pilfering expanded in recent years, so did diligent lobbying for its candidate to head the UN specialised agency known as the World Intellectual Property Organisation in 2020. Ms Wang Binying narrowly lost that election, but China exerts increasing influence in other specialised agencies. One is the International Telecommunications Union. Here Mr Houlin Zhao is the current Director-General and his leadership is a matter of considerable consequence. Tom Tugendhat, a British Conservative MP, recently offered a concise summary of Chinese objectives at the International Telecommunications Union:
At the UN’s International Telecommunications Union Chinese diplomats are preaching new standards for the internet. To reinforce the Great Firewall that keeps ideas out of China, their proposal for a “new IP” would centralise data, exporting China’s model of digital authoritarianism. The whole world would pay the price.
Some will contend that lobbying and generating influence are well-recognised elements of conventional multilateral diplomacy, be it at Interpol, the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the International Telecommunications Union or elsewhere. Perhaps China is simply exercising its expanding diplomatic clout, which is a prerogative well established among other powerful states. Further, UN members that practise every art of persuasion have for decades proffered or sought benefits at one time or another in return for compliant voting. A quid pro quo between states in this context is hardly new in global diplomacy. Others will observe that Australia’s ally the US has at times demonstrated a lively interest in the activities of the specialised agencies, to the point of withdrawing from several and strengthening or weakening others. This is certainly true, although it is also the case that one superpower is neither morally nor politically indistinct from another.
An example will illustrate the point. Even diplomats who offer resistance to China have encountered a now familiar modus operandi: threats, cyber-attacks, business disruption, malicious assaults on reputations, and persistent harassment of their lives and those of their families. Sophie Richardson is the China Director of Human Rights Watch. In 2021 she was rightly alarmed when Beijing’s diplomats literally “threaten[ed] the experts and offices across the UN human rights system”. This conduct by China’s diplomats was a startling act of intimidation directed at long-standing customary international law and fairly recent treaty obligations that clarify the privileges and immunities which attach to certain state representatives. Those arrangements exist for sound reasons: the safety of individual diplomatic agents and their families, along with individual and collective states’ interests.
When grasping for an accurate analogy for this kind of trans-border delinquency it is difficult to avoid ruminating on comparable methods adopted by organised crime. Criminal syndicates learned long ago that attacking the innocent and vulnerable frequently delivers reliable compliance from a reluctant target. The nature of Chinese methods repeatedly demonstrated around the world appears conspicuously similar.
It seems likely that China may eventually achieve decisive influence over several more UN specialised agencies. If so, this ascendance will deliver favourable votes, pliant or acquiescent policies and submission to a mercurial trade in less visible benefits. However, to take China’s influence a step further, a profound re-ordering of multilateral diplomacy is likely to require something far more disturbing: the methodical dissolution of fundamental norms which are the (perhaps fraying) intellectual bulwarks of the existing system. The kernel of the problem is that verities like human rights are viewed with hostility from Beijing because they are irreconcilable with Communist Party dogma. One example of an early target is “democracy”. Distortion of this word’s meaning and a gradual re-definition by China is occurring precisely because democracy is a key organising principle of most civilised states. In March, Stella Chen of the China Media Project wrote:
The global re-framing of democracy is clearly a longer-term strategy for the Chinese Communist Party which claims “whole process democracy” as a democratic system distinct from “that in the West” … China’s democracy was shown [in a recent Xinhua article] not in active citizen participation, regular free and fair elections, political tolerance, transparency or any number of generally recognised principles of democratic governance. Rather, it was demonstrated by declared results … [which] are often quite explicitly about political results and leadership prestige over the public welfare.
The stakes in multilateral diplomacy are greater than animated squabbles over semantics. This is why it seems reasonable for our federal government to support the national interest by considering a mild corrective: increased investment in international diplomacy. Nonetheless, funding a more vigorous diplomatic resistance to China’s influence appears likely to be eyed warily by Canberra policy-makers. The merit in years of intensified networking, painstaking creation of goodwill and conscientious fostering of influence may be goals that seem too distant for our government and its various supporters in the legislature. Foreign Affairs documents prepared for last July’s incoming Secretary referred to Australia’s smaller diplomatic network than those of states with comparable economies. More disquieting was that Foreign Affairs staff apparently contemplated the possibility of imminent budget cuts.
There are probably several reasons at play here: ingrained neo-liberal doctrine that responds cautiously to calls for increased public expenditure (aside from some recent Covid, natural disaster and defence exceptions); the attenuated mentality which accompanies the three-year election cycle; dwindling regard for the organs of the international system among our political class; and a coterie of well-organised businesspeople who effectively portray business profits garnered from Australia’s major trading partner as desirably coincident with national interests—rather than at the corroding tip of precipitously divergent politics.
Australian diplomacy seems likely to benefit from some measurable improvements—in articulacy and guile when responding to China’s propaganda; in shrewdness in the execution of skilful diplomacy; and firmer reactions to egregious Chinese harassment operations that are likely to constitute internationally wrongful acts. To these ends, greater diplomatic resources and fresh clarity of purpose would be desirable facets of an improved foreign policy. One pivotal aspect that remains uncertain is whether our present and future governments are up to the task.
Malcolm Hugh Patterson is an independent legal and international affairs analyst