UN rights council blocks debate on China’s abuses in Xinjiang

The UN Human Rights Council has narrowly voted against holding a debate on China’s northeastern region of Xinjiang, blocking it from discussing a UN report that found Beijing’s abuses against its Muslim Uyghur population could constitute “crimes against humanity”.

Thursday’s vote was a diplomatic victory for China, which has rejected criticism of its conduct in Xinjiang as unfounded. The US, UK, Germany and other allies had proposed holding the debate, but 19 members of the council voted against the motion, with 17 countries in support and 11 abstentions. The 47-member council is the UN’s top human rights body.

In August, the UN’s then rights chief Michelle Bachelet published a report concluding that the large-scale arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang amounted to “serious human rights violations”.

The report, which was only published after a protracted internal battle, also said Beijing’s actions could constitute crimes against humanity. It detailed what it called “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of detainees and “credible” allegations of sexual and gender-based violence.

Nations that supported the debate motion and human rights groups said its defeat threw into doubt the UN’s ability to arbitrate human rights issues under the rising influence of China.

“We are disappointed that, by a narrow margin, the council was unable to agree to hold a discussion . . . No country should be immune from a discussion,” said Michèle Taylor, US ambassador to the council.

Amnesty International called the outcome 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”.

“The UN human rights council has today failed the test to uphold its core mission,” Amnesty said.

Raphaël Viana David of the International Service for Human Rights said: “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.”

Several Muslim-majority countries including Indonesia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan voted against having a debate on Xinjiang. President Xi Jinping visited the latter two countries last month, in his first trip overseas since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Abstentions included Ukraine, India, Brazil and Mexico. Membership of the council rotates every year.

“Today China is targeted; tomorrow any other developing country could be targeted,” Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the UN office in Geneva, told the council before the vote was held.

Uyghur victims’ groups and human rights advocates are now considering alternative avenues for action within the UN system.

“I’m hopeful there will be diplomacy behind the scenes between a range of states and China. Nothing in the rules of procedure prevent this question from being brought again,” said Alice Edwards, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture. Special rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the UN.

“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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