China debate hangs in the balance as states prepare to vote at UN rights body

Delegates attend the 51st session of the Human Rights Council on 12, September, 2022. (Credit: UN Photo/Pierre Albouy)

An initiative to scrutinise China’s human rights record faces an uncertain future at the Human Rights Council today as countries prepare for a tight vote.

The Human Rights Council is due to decide this afternoon on a Western-led proposal to hold a debate on alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang at its next session in March.

The proposal, backed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway, follows the release of a much-anticipated report in August in which the then UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned that “serious human rights violations” have been committed in Xinjiang that could amount to crimes against humanity.

The draft decision requires a one third majority approval from the 47 council members to pass. But China has deployed heavy-handed lobbying efforts to counter the move, according to observers, with some concerned that it could sway the African states to abstain or vote against the draft decision.

A western diplomat said that he was expecting “a very tight vote”, given “the amount of leverage that the Chinese have, particularly in Africa”.

The 13 African countries that hold seats in the council have reportedly faced extreme pressure from China over the vote and are expected to be key in deciding its fate.

“African states are facing immense pressure by China at the highest level to oppose the resolution,” Nicolas Agostini of DefendDefenders, an NGO that promotes human rights in east Africa, told Geneva Solutions. “For China, an abstention would amount to a betrayal. What they want is African states voting no.”

He said the proposal has put African states in a difficult position, alluding to their strong economic ties to China. African countries also generally oppose country-specific resolutions at the council, according to new research by DefendDefenders, making a “no” vote more likely from the 13 members.

So far, only Cameroon and Eritrea out of the African council members have publicly backed China’s position, adding their signature to a joint statement by Beijing issued on 13 September that discredits Bachelet's report.

Agostini said even the more “progressive” African countries such as Gambia and Malawi, who have been vocal in their support of civil society and human rights defenders at the council recently, could be reluctant to back the motion.

Campaigners have been appealing to the religion factor, calling on states that are also members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), 16 of which are part of the Human Rights Council, to show solidarity with the muslim minorities being targeted in Xinjiang.

Phil Lynch, director of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) tweeted: “This vote is a big test of principle, including for OIC states who purport to protect Muslims and religious rights, African states who profess to oppose systemic discrimination, and all states who express their commitment to dialogue.”

The United Arab Emirates have already voiced their support for China, also having backed Beijing’s joint-statement from 13 September.

There are fears that if the proposal is defeated, it will foil any possibility to take any further action on China at the council and western countries might relive the experience with the resolution on Yemen, which has been abandoned since it faced a historic defeat last year. The western diplomat said: “Whatever the result today, the number one objective has been fulfilled. Everybody’s talking about this report, everyone’s had to read this report, in [their respective] capitals, and here.”

Echoing the remarks Agostini said: “I think there’s a recognition within civil society here and beyond that it was still better to have an initiative that failed rather than having no initiative at all,” he said. “Because just sitting on such a strong and scathing report by the high commissioner on China would have been a disaster. More of a disaster than having a failed initiative at the council.”

The proposal stops short of appointing a team of UN experts to investigate possible crimes in Xinjiang, leading to criticism from rights groups that it has not gone far enough to scrutinise alleged abuses against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the region – allegations which China fervently denies.

In an open letter published on Wednesday, a coalition of organisations including Human Rights Watch and CIVICUS said they would have preferred a resolution “to go much further” to establish “an international mechanism to monitor and report on the situation on an ongoing basis”.

“A resolution to discuss the report is the bare minimum response that can be credibly expected from the Human Rights Council when faced with a report of this magnitude,” the organisations said.

However, some council members have defended the proposal as an important step to ensure the report on Xinjiang does not slip under the radar at the council. The western diplomat said that the call for a debate was a “procedural step” that responded to “a significant report which we think requires a formal debate”.

Rights of Russians under the microscope

China is not the only major world power to come under scrutiny in the current Human Rights Council session. A resolution on Russia is also due to come to a vote on Friday over its government’s crackdown on opposition and protest against the war in Ukraine.

The resolution cites a number of human rights concerns in the country including mass arrests and detentions, targeted harassment of journalists, politicians and activists, and a general crackdown on opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

If adopted, the resolution would mandate the appointment of a special rapporteur on Russia to investigate the human rights situation in the country. The Russian mission has rejected the proposal as “politicised” and insisted its “main goals are to punish Russia for pursuing an independent foreign policy course”.

However, western diplomats and rights groups are more optimistic about the fate of the Russia motion. Agostini said African states will again be key. With the exception of Eritrea, he predicted most African countries would likely abstain from the vote while a few might even vote yes, making it more likely to pass.

“China and Russia are not in the same position,” he said. “They don't have the same diplomatic outreach capacity. They don’t have the same involvement in Africa and influence over African economies, and what Russia has done in Ukraine is something that Africans cannot accept because it’s a violation of territorial integrity and the sovereign equality of states. These two concepts are very important for African states.”

As the council prepares to vote on Thursday and Friday, Agostini said there is no doubt African states will play a major role in what are two unprecedented resolutions on China and Russia. “African states will basically determine the outcome,” he said. “They will be the ones that make the decision on these two resolutions.”