UN Faces Internal Tensions Over Abuses in Xinjiang, Engagement with Chinese Initiatives

China has taken center stage at two major events currently taking place at the UN: the 51st session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York. Many Western developed countries are deliberating over the proper response to China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, with activists demanding substantive action after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet concluded China may be committing crimes against humanity. But many non-Western, less-developed countries, as well as UN Secretary General António Guterres, are rallying around China’s efforts to expand its Global Development Initiative and reform global governance. The polarizing effect of China’s activities in the international arena has led to increasing fragmentation of the UN, and may  threaten the UN’s ability to resolve global issues at the heart of its mandate. 

Many countries are scrambling to create an action plan to hold China accountable for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Matt Sedensky from the Associated Press described the galvanizing effect of Bachelet’s report, the most authoritative of its kind:

“Inaction is no longer possible,” Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on minority rights said at a forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council and Human Rights Watch as world leaders descend on New York. “If we allow this to go unpunished, what kind of message is being propagated?”

Jeffrey Prescott, a deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, suggested the integrity of the institution was at stake in its response to China.

“How these atrocities are addressed goes ultimately to the credibility of that system, to the credibility of our international system itself,” he said. “It’s deeply disheartening to see a country that has been so central to the creation of the modern U.N. system, and enjoys its status as a permanent member of the Security Council, so profoundly violating its commitments.” [Source]

Adding to the momentum at a side event to the UN General Assembly, Bachelet’s predecessor Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated that he believed genocide should have been mentioned in the UN report. Outside the White House in Washington, D.C., Uyghur activists began a hunger strike on Tuesday in order to pressure the U.S. government to introduce a resolution on Xinjiang at the Human Rights Council:

The Chinese government has mounted fierce resistance to any UN attempt to further investigate its abuses in Xinjiang. After Bachelet released her report, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the document had been “planned and manufactured first hand by the US and some Western forces” and “is wholly illegal and invalid,” while spokesperson for the Chinese mission to Geneva Liu Yuyin characterized the “so-called ‘assessment’ on Xinjiang” as a “farce.” Earlier this month, China’s ambassador to the UN said China would no longer cooperate with the Human Rights Council due to the publication of the Xinjiang report, and this Thursday Xinjiang government spokesman Xu Guixiang told Reuters that “[w]e are going to take countermeasures. We are ready for the fight.” 

With the Human Rights Council currently including a large contingent of countries that have previously supported China in UN resolutions on Xinjiang, it will likely prove challenging to mobilize enough votes for substantive action. Former executive director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth said that “One of [China’s] top priorities right now, maybe after Taiwan, is to avoid condemnation by the Human Rights Council,” adding that “more than any government in the past, [China] is trying to undermine the UN human rights system” with pressure on officials and witnesses and incentives to foreign governments. Patrick Wintour at The Guardian offered insight into how the two sides might stack up following a recent statement by China, supported by 30 countries, accusing the UN rights office of polarizing and politicizing human rights:

The number of signatories [on a recent statement backed by 30 countries] represents the hardcore that regularly supports China and was below the 40 that signed a statement in June urging Bachelet not to publish her report, but [Olaf Wientzek, from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation thinktank,] said: “This may reflect the fact that the latest Chinese statement directly criticised the UN human rights office, and was not the usual discourse directed against a group of mainly western countries.”

The HRC has 47 member states, and only eight of the 30 signatories to the Chinese statement are current voting members, but observers estimate a vote to set up a well-resourced independent mechanism would be very close, with roughly 14 backing the mechanism and between 15 and 18 supporting China’s stance. 

[…] The eight signatories to the statement that sit on the HRC apart from China are Bolivia, Cameroon, Eritrea, Cuba, Venezuela, Nepal, United Arab Emirates and Russia. But there are at least seven African states, as well as Pakistan, that have previously backed China on human rights norms at the UN, that sit on the HRC, and may back China again. As many as 17 countries may abstain including India, Indonesia, Mexico and Malaysia. [Source]

China’s growing influence within UN organizational structures is another barrier to action. Two of the UN’s 18 specialized agencies are run by Chinese officials, and until last year Chinese officials also led the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Industrial Development Organization. Even at the very top, UN Secretary-General Guterres has been notably reluctant to offend China. In an interview with Chinese state-broadcaster channel CGTN this week, he praised China’s poverty alleviation efforts and made no mention of its human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, although a few days later, he lamented the “outright inaction and negligence” and lack of “leadership and resolute action” in defending minority rights globally.

Meanwhile, China is pushing forward its own initiatives in the UN and gaining broad support from the Global South. On Wednesday in New York, China hosted a meeting of the Group of Friends of the Global Development Initiative (GDI), attended by delegates from 60 countries, including four deputy prime ministers and more than 30 foreign ministers, as well as representatives of ten international organizations and UN entities. Secretary General Guterres appeared in a video message in which he stated, “The holistic Global Development Initiative is a valued contribution to addressing common challenges and accelerating the transition to a more sustainable and inclusive future.” The Group agreed to lobby the Secretary General to establish a task force for the promotion of the GDI in order “to strengthen policy dialogues and strategic alignment between the Group and the UN development agencies.”

There is still much debate over the form and purpose of the GDI. An Economist profile of the GDI this summer positioned its ostensibly positive goals in opposition to Western interests, stating, “[the GDI] is not as innocent as it sounds,” adding, “[t]he battle lines are being drawn.” Launched by Xi Jinping one year ago, it has been described by Chinese officials and state media as an evolution of China’s vision for global development, following the Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at strengthening South-South cooperation and aligning with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Summarizing a GDI-themed event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Christopher Edyegu at the China-Global South Project wrote that the GDI is in part a “leadership bid” by China to woo developing countries and demonstrate its concern for their priorities:

DEBORAH BRAUTIGAM, DIRECTOR OF CHINA-AFRICA RESEARCH INITIATIVE: The GDI is actually still very vague. It is a statement of principles. It is a statement of support for the UN’s sustainable development goals and what’s called the 2030 agenda. And it’s what China is going to do in support of those human development goals but it’s even broader than that. It’s what China’s responsibilities are as a developing country. I think that the Chinese themselves have not worked out yet what the GDI is. […] China is saying that we are a developing country and we are in this as a developing country. We are one of 150 or so developing countries at the United Nations, we are a big group. And so that position was important. 

[…] SAMANTHA CUSTER, DIRECTOR OF POLICY ANALYSIS AT AIDDATA: I think it [GDI] is part animating vision, kind of a rallying cry of how the world can achieve the world that the UN member nations set out in the sustainable development goals agenda that has kind of lost steam and traction over the years. And so you see in a lot of the coverage of this, almost a problem diagnosis of why we haven’t achieved these things and then China offering a proposed solution, a set of principles and narratives to guide us. I think it’s also partly a campaign speech, a kind of leadership bid for China as a global leader at the forefront of the SDGs, a responsible partner in helping countries learn from and emulate its success story. In a way, it’s a good way to inoculate itself against some of the negative criticism that BRI has received over the years. And then it’s a big tent umbrella…similar to the way BRI was pitched. This very inclusive club, anyone can join, you pool resources, you pool risk, you pool knowledge and lessons learned…But I also think it’s an interesting question of reframing narratives around governance and human rights to make a more conducive environment for China’s views on these things. [Source]

Western governments and media outlets have appeared largely uninterested or even hostile toward China’s GDI. As Eric Olander pointed out, despite the enormous turnout for China’s diplomatic event in New York, not a single major American or European media outlet covered the meeting. Western apathy risks ignoring the extent to which China is reshaping power within the UN. In the latest episode of the China in Africa podcast, Cobus van Staden noted: “China is increasingly focusing on development as a form of coalition-building, and in the process is changing very established narratives of what development means and how you achieve it. And to a certain extent, getting quite an enthusiastic audience in the Global South.”


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