U.N. Human Rights Council Declines Debate on Xinjiang Report

On Thursday, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted against a motion to debate the human rights situation in Xinjiang. The vote, occurring one month after then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a report finding serious human rights issues in the region that may amount to crimes against humanity, is a heavy blow to both the U.N.’s credibility in many eyes, and to activists’ hopes. It also marks only the second time in the Human Rights Council’s history that it has rejected a motion. Jamey Keaten from the Associated Press reported on the low bar that the council failed to overcome:

At the 47-member state Human Rights Council, 17 countries voted in favor, 19 were against, and 11 abstained in a vote to hold a debate on Xinjiang at its next session in March. The vote amounted to a test of political and diplomatic clout between the West and Beijing, and would have marked the first time that China’s record on human rights would merit a specific agenda item at the council.

[…] A simple majority of voting countries was required.

[…] The proposal was for just to hold a debate, with no consistent monitoring of the rights situation, and amounted just about the least intrusive form of scrutiny that the council could seek.

The call stopped short of creating a team of investigators to look into possible crimes in Xinjiang, or appointing a special rapporteur — a tacit acknowledgement by the Western countries that going after increasingly influential China would be a tall order. [Source]

There was a rare burst of applause in the council chambers after the final result was announced. AFP described how each country voted:

The nations voting against a debate were Bolivia, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Gabon, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Namibia, Nepal, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

Argentina, Armenia, Benin, Brazil, Gambia, India, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico and Ukraine abstained.

[…] The draft decision was put forward by the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Turkey, among others.

[…] In the end, only Somalia voted ‘yes’ out of 13 [African] countries. [Source]

In an op-ed for The New York Times last week, human rights expert and China specialist Nicholas Bequelin described the danger of China’s efforts to gut the U.N. human rights system:

The Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate goal is to cripple the international community’s ability to censure countries for human rights violations.

[…] This is deeply concerning because, for all its defects, the United Nations plays a crucial role in protecting human rights.

Before the world body was founded after World War II, no international framework existed for addressing the ethnic cleansing, mass murder, colonial brutality and other human rights abuses that states routinely committed, often against their own people.

U.N. founders absorbed the grim 20th-century lessons of two world wars, tens of millions of deaths and the Holocaust, realizing that protecting human rights was essential for world peace. Nazi Germany was viewed as proof that political repression often precedes the rise of belligerent regimes. [Source]

Drawing a connection between China’s behind-the-scenes efforts and this week’s UNHRC vote, Human Rights Watch’s China Director Sophie Richardson explained on Monday the significance of the Human Rights Council’s potential failure to hold a debate on Xinjiang:

If [China’s attempt to suppress debate] prevails, it would undermine the institutional integrity of the Human Rights Council by placing the human rights situation in one country uniquely beyond international scrutiny. The council is explicitly mandated to discuss human rights violations committed by any state. To allow a single government to escape scrutiny for some of the worst violations under international law will not only mean failing victims and survivors, but also enabling abusers and creating a dangerous double standard. [Source]

Other human rights activists underlined the gravity of this failure. Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard called out the U.N. for blatantly ignoring its own report and refusing to uphold its mission:

“Today’s vote protects the perpetrators of human rights violations rather than the victims – a dismaying result that puts the UN’s main human rights body in the farcical position of ignoring the findings of the UN’s own human rights office.

[…] “For Council member states to vote against even discussing a situation where the UN itself says crimes against humanity may have occurred makes a mockery of everything the Human Rights Council is supposed to stand for.

[…] “The UN Human Rights Council has today failed the test to uphold its core mission, which is to protect the victims of human rights violations everywhere, including in places such as Xinjiang. [Source]

Members of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) pointed out the hypocrisy of the Human Rights Council and of the voting decisions made by certain countries:

Sarah Brooks, ISHR Programme Director: “No government has a perfect record of sticking to principle when voting on UN resolutions. Yet, this resolution was a crucial test of the credibility of the Human Rights Council as a whole and, particularly, its ability to respond to atrocity crimes even at the hands of the most powerful governments.”

Phil Lynch, ISHR Executive Director: “The Uyghur people are facing arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and systematic ethnic and religious discrimination on an industrial scale. It is shameful that Global South governments who profess their committment to dialogue, Muslim countries supposedly committed to religious rights and freedoms, and African governments who purport to oppose systemic discrimination have overwhelmingly failed to even support a UN discussion on rights abuses against Uyghurs. Only Somalia, Honduras and Paraguay stand out as principled.”

[…] Raphael Viana David, ISHR China and Latin America Advocate: “While, in recent years, the Council has been able to scrutinise international crimes in Palestine, Ukraine or Myanmar, and to investigate systemic racism and police violence in the United States, Council members sent today a dreadful message: China remains so far untouchable.” [Source]

Uyghur activists were also furious with the result. Rushan Abbas, the founder and executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, said those countries who sided with China “should consider the consequences of allowing one powerful country to effectively have impunity for committing genocide.” Emma Farge at Reuters shared some criticism from Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress:

“This is a disaster. This is really disappointing,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, whose mother died in a camp and whose two brothers are missing.

“We will never give up but we are really disappointed by the reaction of Muslim countries,” he added. 

[…] “It’s a serious blow for the credibility of the council and a clear victory for China,” [said Universal Rights Group’s Marc Limon.] “Many developing countries will see it as adjustment away from western predominance in the U.N. human rights system.” [Source]

China lobbied heavily to attain a favorable result. Warning other countries on the council, Chinese ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Chen Xu said, “Today China is targeted, tomorrow any other developing country could be targeted.” Some analysts pointed out that Xi Jinping’s rare visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan last month may have proved crucial to the outcome, since those countries have abstained from siding with China on previous votes and would have created a tie had they done so again this time.

Western governments that led the push for a debate expressed their disappointment after the vote. The French mission to the U.N. in Geneva said it “regrets” the outcome and stated that Bachelet’s report “warrants the full attention of the council.” The German mission termed the vote “a dire day for multilateralism” and the German Foreign Office called it a “dark day for #humanrights.” The U.K.’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva wrote that “China’s efforts to stifle debate and hide the truth will not succeed.” Michèle Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, condemned the council’s inaction and stated, “No country represented here today has a perfect human rights record. No country, no matter how powerful, should be excluded from human rights discussions—this includes my country, the United States, and it includes the People’s Republic of China.” Interestingly, although Ukraine officially abstained from voting, the chair of the Ukrainian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee called the inaction “outrageous”:

While Thursday’s vote limits the prospects for future international scrutiny of China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, activists have vowed to continue their pursuit of accountability. Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson called on national prosecutors to launch cases and U.N. member states to implement the recommendations laid out in Bachelet’s report. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture announced her readiness to explore alternative avenues for following up on the vote. (The Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, whose recent report found forced labor in Xinjiang that “may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity,” also announced on Thursday that his mandate had been extended.) “The road to justice is never an easy one,” said Omer Kanat of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “The Chinese government’s singular goal has been to silence even a discussion of the issue—we cannot allow this to happen.”


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