Future of Human Rights Council in the balance as states grapple with Xinjiang report

The Human Rights Council at its 50th session in June, 2022 (Credit: UN photo/Violaine Martin)

Countries are gearing up for a tense four weeks in Geneva as the war in Ukraine is in its seventh month and the UN rights chief’s recent report on Xinjiang puts western countries in a tough spot. The UN Human Rights Council, held from 12 September to 7 October at Palais des Nations in Geneva, will kick off its 51st session on Monday, with a number of contentious issues opposing world powers to dominate the agenda.

Credibility of western countries in the balance

Western countries could be headed for a showdown with China over the UN human rights chief’s report on Xinjiang, which was released on 1 September after much delay and warns of possible crimes against humanity committed against the Uyghur minority. That’s at least what rights campaigners are hoping will happen, as they repeat their calls for an inquiry into the abuses. Over 40 UN experts have backed their demands, renewing a call on Wednesday for the Council to convene a special session on China.

But western countries have been left to scratch their heads over the best course of action to respond to Michelle Bachelet’s report, which they repeatedly asked for to be released. China’s strong sway over many states, not to mention its allies from the like-minded group, makes it extremely difficult for a strong investigation mechanism to get the necessary votes to pass at the Council.

Diplomats have admitted that issuing a joint statement condemning China’s actions, like they have done in the past, would be at this point useless and a sign of weakness. However, presenting a resolution against China risks not winning enough votes – a move which western diplomats in Geneva say they cannot afford.

But the dilemma goes on. If they decide to do nothing, it would bring the Council’s credibility into question, revealing its inability to address serious human rights violations. It would also reaffirm China’s political power in the multilateral arena, after having managed to bargain a six-month delay of Bachelet’s report in exchange for a country visit.

Speaking to reporters at a briefing organised by the Association of UN Correspondents (ACANU) on Friday, China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Cheng Xu, said China will “strongly oppose” any kind of motion or move against it at the upcoming session.

Russia: a new approach?

The China dilemma is further complicated by calls to continue to hold Russia to account at the Human Rights Council over its invasion of Ukraine and alleged human rights abuses in the country.

There are also renewed talks on whether the time is right for a resolution addressing human rights practices within Russia. Local and international NGOs have been calling for the appointment of a special rapporteur on Russia.

Observers fear, however, that taking on two of the world’s largest superpowers may be too much for member states to stomach, further aggravating divisions within the council and weakening attempts in both cases to address rights violations.  Countries might have to decide where to put their energy.

New UN rights chief absent

After being appointed at the last minute as the next UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk is not expected to be at the meeting as he’ll need time before taking on his duties, Rolando Gomez, public information officer for the Human Rights Council, told reporters on Friday.

When he does, Turk will have to grapple among other challenges with his predecessor’s report on Xinjiang, but for the moment deputy high commissioner Nada Al Nashif is in charge of the UN rights office and will have to answer any questions about China that might come up during the first days of debate.

Probe missions hand in their results

Over the next four weeks, countries will also hear about the ongoing human rights crises in other parts of the world, including from several investigative mechanisms for war-torn countries. Set up in March, the commission of inquiry on Ukraine will present its preliminary findings on abuses committed in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions in the first months of the Russian invasion.

Syria will see its 27th report in over 11 years of civil war that has resulted in over 12 million people displaced within and outside the country. Over that period, the commission of inquiry has never been allowed inside the country by the Syrian government.

After having visited the country in July, the commission of human rights experts on Ethiopia will also present its report on rights violations committed since the conflict broke out in 2020. Hostilities between the government and Tigray People's Liberation Front resumed two weeks ago, ending a five-month truce.

Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Palestine, Venezuela, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi are among the other countries to come under the spotlight as reports on their human rights situations are discussed.

Some diplomats, ahead of the session, expressed their concern that it was becoming harder to promote meaningful accountability mechanisms amid rising authoritarianism across the globe and resistance by many countries to have their human rights records examined.

Resolutions to keep an eye on

Talks are being held over whether to renew a fact-finding mission tasked with investigating crimes against humanity in Venezuela, according to a diplomatic source, as the current mandate reaches the end of its total three-year term. A proposal has yet to be officially announced.

A coalition of over 100 international and local NGOs have called on states to renew the mission’s mandate, warning that the human rights situation in the country shows little signs of improvement as President Nicolas Maduro keeps a tight grip on all key political institutions.

Tamara Taraciuk Broner, deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, told reporters in Geneva last week that the mission was crucial to get Maduro’s government to cooperate in negotiations with the opposition currently hosted by Mexico. “Venezuela won’t sit down voluntarily and any concessions will come from international pressure,” she said.

Among the new initiatives that have been formally announced, the Marshall Islands will be requesting assistance to deal with the human rights implications of the nuclear tests conducted in the pacific island by the United States between 1946 and 1958. Greece has said it will table a resolution to commission a report from the Human Rights Council’s advisory committee on the ethical and legal consequences of neurotechnologies, a rapidly developing field of electronic devices that tamper with the mind.

In sum, over 45 resolutions are due to be discussed in informal meetings and behind closed doors over the coming month, while countries hear about more than 80 reports. Speaking to the media in Geneva on Wednesday, Federico Villegas, president of the Council, said that the 51st session would be “another extremely busy session that reflects the increasing workload of the Council”.