19 countries saved China from a debate at the Human Rights Council on its “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang—a shame, but Beijing is not off the hook.
by Ruth Ingram
Hopeful signs that China would have to stand before the world and account for its crimes were dashed last week after members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted by just two votes against a debate on Xinjiang atrocities.
With the ballot cast 19 to 17 against confronting the superpower at next year’s UNHRC in March over the contents of a recent UN report, citing “crimes against humanity” and a raft of human rights atrocities against Xinjiang’s Turkic ethnic peoples, Uyghur groups were devastated that Muslim brotherhood seems to count for nothing when facing up to the Superpower.
Not only Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Indonesia, but blood brothers Uzbekistan, and Kazakstan’s siding with Beijing distressed Uyghur exiles who feel abandoned in their hour of need. “This was hard to swallow,” said Rahima Mahmut, leader of the UK branch of the World Uyghur Congress. “There are moments of joy in activism but also ones of darkness. It can feel like the world is not listening despite the sacrifices we have made to speak out.”
Of the eleven countries abstaining, the biggest surprise was Ukraine, whose reliance on Western aid has been pivotal in its struggle against Russian aggression. Every “no” vote or abstention in favour of China can be explained in terms of debt, geopolitical necessity, fear, and intimidation. Ukraine’s fear of upsetting China however might also be understood in terms of its own fragile position. Making an enemy of China at this stage might risk losing an ally in the battle for Putin’s heart and an outside chance at restraint.
Ukraine’s volte face the day after the vote, when it announced he had changed its position and was now in favor of a debate on China’s atrocities, counted for nothing in the final tally according to UNHRC rules and was equally puzzling, but gave Uyghur supporters some comfort and hope that the battle for justice in their homeland might succeed one day.
Intense lobbying on both sides as the UNHRC prepared to sit, saw dozens of experts release a statement urging Beijing to address the “grave human rights violations” in Xinjiang, but at the same time saw Beijing fiercely lobbying behind the scenes against a showdown before the Council.
Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the UN, said shortly before the vote that “today China is targeted. Tomorrow any other developing country could be targeted.” Following the vote, he exuberantly declared that the “numerous lies and rumors in an attempt to smear China” would not see the light of day.
Representatives of Western nations supporting a showdown were disappointed. The US permanent representative to the UNHRC, Michele Taylor, said “No country should be immune from a discussion at the Council. We will 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.” She reiterated the US commitment to defend human rights. “We will continue to insist that the Human Rights Council can and must be a meaningful forum for discussion of these issues,” she said.
The UK’s permanent representative, Simon Manley, said that the vote sent a “clear message to China” that a significant number of countries would not be silenced when it comes to egregious human rights violations—“no matter where and by whom they are committed.” “We will continue to work with our partners to hold the Chinese authorities to account and to shine a spotlight on China’s human rights violations.”
Luke de Pulford, co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response, and outspoken critic on Beijing’s human rights record, speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, accused the UN of being an enabler for China’s ambitions. “This is a moral outrage which surprised nobody,” he said. “China has become so powerful that it can prevent the UN from debating its own High Commissioner’s report,” he said.
Amnesty International condemned the result, that “made a mockery of everything the Human Rights Council is supposed to stand for.” “Today’s vote protects the perpetrators of human rights violations rather than the victims—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,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard.
The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a group of 66 Uyghur organisations from twenty countries, is appealing to UN agencies and experts to act on their mandates and hold China to the same standards as other countries.
“The road to justice is never an easy one,” said Omer Kanat, Uyghur Human Rights Project Executive Director. “The Chinese government’s singular goal has been to silence even a discussion of the issue—we cannot allow this to happen.”