Human Rights Council shuts down China debate proposal in close vote

CHEN Xu, Permanent Representative of China to the UN in Geneva speaks at a special session on Ukraine on 12 May, 2022. (Credit:UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré)

Countries reject proposal to discuss rights abuses in Xinjiang at the UN rights body, in major win for China.

A Western-led proposal to hold a debate on alleged human rights abuses committed in Xinjiang was defeated on Thursday at the Human Rights Council in a tight vote of 19 states against, 17 in favour and 11 abstentions. The vote was followed by a burst of applause from some delegates in the room.

The defeat deals a major blow to western powers and comes after weeks of lobbying to get the Human Rights Council to act upon the accusations of the former UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet of “serious human rights violations”, some of which could amount to “crimes against humanity”.

Arguing in favour of their proposal, western states recalled the gravity of Bachelet’s findings, from mass enforced disappearances to forced sterilisations. The Netherlands reminded fellow members that there have been reports of such violations for years going all the way back to 2016. Norway said that the situation at least “merited a discussion”.

China, who accused the West of “political manipulation” and “double standards”, played on the fears of developing countries that if the text passed, it would create a precedent and they would be next. “Today China is targeted, tomorrow any other developing country could be targeted,” China’s ambassador Chen Xu said ahead of the vote.

Western states in turn tried to downplay the severity of the response as a mere “procedural step”. The United States, one of the leaders, said that the proposal took “no position on the situation” and would “allow China to put its views on record”. Echoing the remarks, Finland said that it did not “prejudge” the situation in Xinjiang and France said that it was a “measured approach”. But their arguments fell on many deaf ears.

Out of the 17 state members of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation holding a seat at the Human Rights Council, 13 voted against the resolution and only one, Somalia, voted in favour. Qatar, which voted against, argued that it was “not the optimal solution” to address the situation of the Uyghur Muslim. Pakistan said that holding a debate without China’s consent “undermined the constructive spirit” of the council, while Indonesia claimed that it “would not lead to meaningful progress”.

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The Human Rights Council rejected a Western-led proposal for a debate on Xinjiang after a third majority of 19 countries voted against it on 6 October, 2022. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/ML)

While still recovering from the defeat, western countries promptly issued reactions to signal that the fight isn’t over. UK ambassador Simon Manley said: “Today’s vote sent a clear message to China: that a significant number of countries will not be silenced when it comes to egregious human rights violations – no matter where and by whom they are committed.”

US Ambassador Michèle Taylor voiced her disappointment at the outcome in a statement and assured that the US would “continue to work closely with our partners to seek justice and accountability for victims of human rights abuses and violations, including the Uyghurs in Xinjiang”.

Rights organisations who had been fiercely campaigning for the council to take on the Xinjiang issue called the vote “shameful”, singling out OIC countries for not standing up for the rights of Muslim Uyghur.

“It is shameful that global south governments who profess their commitment 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,” said Phil Lynch, executive director for the International Service of Human Rights (ISHR).

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, called it “an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of Uyghur victims”.

Dolkun Isa, president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress, was in Geneva to witness the vote. He expressed his disappointment at Muslim countries siding with China. “This is unacceptable. This is a shame,” he told Geneva Solutions, accusing China of manipulating the Human Rights Council in its favour.

He added: “We will never give up and one – and maybe next session, the truth and [what is] right will win”.