Democracies Seek Unprecedented Human Rights Council Scrutiny of China


Beijing dispatched senior officials from the Xinjiang region to U.N. headquarters in Geneva last week for a PR offensive aimed at discrediting the U.N. human rights office’s report which warns of possible crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images)

( – For the first time in the 16 years of its existence, the U.N. Human Rights Council is being asked to hold a debate on allegations of human rights abuses committed by China, one of its most powerful and influential members.

Whether the debate on the human rights situation in the Xinjiang region goes ahead at the council’s next session in Geneva, early next year, will depend on the behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts of China and the United States and their respective allies in the coming days.

The U.S. on Monday introduced a draft resolution calling for a debate to be held, supported by Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. A vote on the resolution is expected to be held next week.

The simple, two paragraph text points to the report on Xinjiang that was released by former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet minutes before she left her post on August 31. It then says that the council “decides to hold a debate on the situation of human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, at its fifty-second session under Item 2.”

The HRC holds its 52nd regular session next February and March, and item two of the agenda deals with reports from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The report released by Bachelet – after long delays and active attempts by Beijing to have it buried – found that China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, including “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” and the deprivation of rights, “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Addressing the council on Monday, U.S. delegate Kelly Billingsley once again referred to violations in the Chinese region as genocide, in line with a determination made by the outgoing Trump administration, and affirmed by its successor.

“The United States remains deeply concerned by the genocide and crimes against humanity that the People’s Republic of China’s authorities are perpetrating against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,” she said.

Referring to the OHCHR report, Billingsley called on China “to immediately cease committing these atrocities, release those unjustly detained, account for the fate of those disappeared, and allow independent experts unhindered access to Xinjiang.”

China’s statement was delivered by a senior Xinjiang politician, Shawkat Imin, who accused Western countries of turning a blind eye to the “tremendous human rights achievements in Xinjiang,” in a bid “to politicize and instrumentalize human rights issues to destabilize Xinjiang and split China.”

Heralding the uphill battle facing backers of the U.S.-led resolution, Pakistan delivered a statement on behalf of 68 countries siding with Beijing’s stance.

“Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet related issues are China’s internal affairs,” the statement said. “We oppose politicization of human rights and double standards, or interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.”

Seventeen of the 68 signatories to that statement are members of the 47-member HRC, which will vote on the resolution calling for a debate on Xinjiang. The 17 are: Benin, Bolivia, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Libya, Mauritania, Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, UAE, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela.

The U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images)

The U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images)

Twenty-four opposing votes will be enough to kill the resolution, so assuming that all 17 of those China backers intend to vote “no,” China will need to secure at least another seven council members’ votes.

In pursuing those votes, Beijing and allies will look to HRC members from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The U.S. and allied democracies, meanwhile, will be looking to win over as many as possible from the same pool.

The countries both camps will target are Argentina, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Honduras, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, Paraguay, Qatar, and Senegal.

‘We warn that this council is losing its credibility’

Since it was established in 2006, the HRC has been plagued – in the eyes of democracies and human rights advocates – by the presence and activism of some of the world’s most repressive regimes.

Many of those countries (China, Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia among them) have never been targeted for criticism in a council resolution. On the other end of the scale, Israel has been confronted by scores of condemnatory resolutions, typically spearheaded by many of those same repressive states.

Facing new efforts by democracies to turn the spotlight onto China – as well as on Russia, over the invasion of Ukraine – several speakers at Monday’s meetings decried what they called the “politicization” of the HRC.

“The U.N. human rights bodies are expected to adhere to the principles of impartiality and objectivity,” said the Chinese delegate, while the representative of Venezuela’s Maduro regime complained that “some powers and their allies unleash negative media campaigns” targeting developing countries. He offered as an example the “unfounded accusations against China on Xinjiang.”

“We oppose the manipulation of human rights speech in order to strive to condemn countries such as Belarus, Russia, China, Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria, or South Sudan,” he said.

“Hegemonic countries try to attack these states on purely political grounds. We warn that this council is losing its credibility.”

Pakistan’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), said the bloc of Muslim-majority states has “concerns over the increasing politicization of this council in pursuit of selective approaches.”

“The council’s credibility rests on considering each situation on its human rights merits,” he added.

See also:
UN Rights Office Releases Xinjiang Report at Eleventh-Hour, Cites Possible ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ (Sept. 1, 2022)
In 2022, Only 31.9% of UN Human Rights Council Will Be ‘Free’ Countries (Oct. 5, 2021)

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