China and Russia, emboldened by the Trump administration’s retreat on human rights issues and its drive to cut spending at the United Nations, are quietly seeking to scale back programs in U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world that protect civilians from violence and sexual exploitation, according to diplomats and confidential documents.
The two countries are waging the campaign largely in closed-door budget negotiations, where they’re arguing for dramatic cuts in funding for the programs and the elimination of at least 170 jobs.
Both Russia and China are motivated by a broad disdain for human rights promotion at the U.N. and a feeling that the world body should not be meddling in the domestic policies of member states.
Their position on the issue is not new but previous U.S. administrations have usually managed to prevent China and Russia from undermining the work the U.N. does on human rights. Now, the two countries are benefiting from President Donald Trump’s impulse to withdraw from the world and withhold money from international organizations.
“Every year there is a push by China and Russia” to roll back human rights, one of the diplomats said, but this year, the “push is getting stronger.”
“Obviously there is a lot of pressure from Washington to get savings. We fear that they may be ready to give up on the human rights positions too easily.”
According to internal U.N. negotiating documents, the cuts Beijing and Moscow are proposing focus on a range of U.N. programs designed to investigate human rights abuses and sexual exploitation of women and children in peacekeeping missions from Cyprus to South Sudan.
For instance, Russia wants a 50 percent funding cut for human rights-related activities in U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cyprus, Haiti, Sudan, South Sudan, and Abyei, an enclave disputed by the latter two. It has also called for halving the budget for programs designed to prevent the sexual exploitation of girls and women in Abyei, the Central African Republic, and Haiti.
Moscow has also targeted a number of jobs that promote human rights, including a post for a victims’ rights advocate in the DRC.
“If successful, the cuts would set U.N. peacekeeping back by decades,” said Alison Giffen, peacekeeping director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an independent think tank that studies U.N. peacekeeping.
“In light of the increasing complexity of conflict and the number of civilians intentionally targeted by violence, now is a time to be strengthening — not crippling — peacekeeping efforts,” she said.
China’s proposed cuts are far more targeted. They call for eliminating more than 35 posts for human rights officers, investigators, and experts on gender.
In the past, China has sought to block newly established human rights jobs from being funded. The fact that it is now seeking to eliminate dozens of existing posts suggested a hardening of its position.
“The scale of what Russia and China are trying to do is beyond what they have tried to do in previous years,” said Louis Charbonneau, who tracks the U.N. for the group Human Rights Watch. “Their approach is to essentially remove the human rights pillar from the U.N. post by post.”
“If even half or a quarter of this went through it would be a disaster,” he added.
The Chinese and Russian proposals amount to an opening bid in an intensive round of haggling that will end on July 1. Officials said the two countries would likely have to compromise.
But China in particular is playing a long game, using its increased influence at the U.N. to get reductions in funding for human rights activities.
Over the past year, China has blocked dissidents from participating in U.N. conferences, and championed job cuts in U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s principal office for human rights advocacy.
In some instances, the Trump administration has pushed back against China and Russia but in other cases, it has left the arena open for the two countries to exert more influence. Last week, for example, the United States announced it was withdrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Council, citing its excessive focus on Israel among other objections.
The United States is seeking more than $129 million in cuts in U.N. peacekeeping programs. It has not specified which programs it is prepared to sacrifice to meet its target.
The U.S. Mission to the U.N. did not respond to a request for comment.
The budget talks are playing out in parallel with negotiations over two major reform initiatives that are high priorities for Western powers and for the U.N. secretary-general. The overlapping negotiations — which need to be concluded by July 1 — have given China and Russia greater leverage to eliminate posts in the human rights arena.
“We have more to lose,” the diplomat said.