Western countries call for UN human rights debate on China’s Xinjiang

Uyghurs demonstrate against China outside the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, November 2018. (Keystone/Salvatore di Nolfi)

A group of countries have called for a debate at the United Nations Human Rights Council to discuss China’s alleged rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region.

The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway backed the “draft decision” tabled on Monday that seeks a debate during the council’s next session, which begins in February. 

The move follows the release of a much-anticipated UN report last month that warned “serious human rights violations have been committed” in Xinjiang that could amount to “crimes against humanity”. 

China denies any abuses and sent a government delegation to Geneva last week to counter the claims made in the report, which it said “cannot be further from the facts”.

Read also: UN’s Bachelet releases report on Xinjiang, citing possible crimes against humanity.

Addressing journalists in Geneva, a spokesperson for the Xinjiang government said China is “ready for the fight” if action is taken against it at the Human Rights Council over the report’s findings. 

Intense discussions have been ongoing on the sidelines of the council’s current session following the release of the report by the UN’s last human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who published her findings just minutes before leaving her post on 31 August. 

Bachelet’s office found credible evidence of torture, arbitrary detention and forced labour of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, stemming from the Chinese government’s discriminative counter-terrorism policies. 

China led a fierce campaign to quash the report until the last moment, claiming in a 130-page-response that Bachelet’s assessment “wantonly smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs”.

The long-awaited report was welcomed by rights groups who had feared it might never see the light of day due to fierce opposition from China. 

Monday’s resolution would need a majority vote at the Geneva forum to pass. If the debate occurs in February’s session, it would be the first time alleged rights abuses by China feature on the UN rights body’s agenda in its 16-year history. 

Read also: ‘We’re ready for the fight’: China ramps up response to Xinjiang report as pressure mounts on Human Rights Council

The proposed debate falls short of a resolution seeking another investigation into abuses in Xinjiang, which a number of rights groups have been calling for following Bachelet’s report. China could still seek to throw out the debate by submitting a no action motion.

Beijing’s delegation has been seeking to rally support at the 47-member council in the face of possible action following the report. However, it has failed to garner much support so far. Fewer than 10 voting members of the council backed a statement presented by China earlier this month which criticised the report. 

China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva said Beijing would no longer cooperate with the UN human rights office following the release of the report, which it said “closed the door of cooperation by releasing the so-called statement”.