Call for debate on rights violations in Xinjiang rejected by UN Human Rights Council

China and its allies on the Council defeated the US proposal in a 19-17 vote with 11 abstentions.
By Alim Seytoff for RFA Uyghur
A view of the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center, believed to be a 're-education' camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Kashgar in northwestern China's Xinjiang region, June 2, 2019.

UPDATED at 4:40 P.M. EDT on 2022-10-07

Uyghur activists and human rights groups expressed outrage on Thursday over the voting down of a U.S. proposal that the United Nations Human Rights Council hold a debate on a recent report by the body’s rights chief on abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.

China and its allies on the 47-member Council defeated the proposal, known as a draft decision, in a 19-17 vote, with 11 abstentions. The U.S. and Norway cosponsored the proposal.

The U.S. submitted the draft decision on Sept. 26 demanding that the Geneva-based council organize the discussion in response to a damning report issued a month earlier by former U.N. Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.

Bachelet’s report, released on the final day of her four-year term on Aug. 31, documented widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including torture, arbitrary arrests, forced abortions, and violations of religious freedom. It said the repression there “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

“For the first time in its history, the U.N.’s top human rights body considered a proposal to debate the human rights situation in the Xinjiang region of China,” Sophie Richardson, China director at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement issued after Thursday’s vote. 

“While the Council’s failure to adopt the proposal is an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of Uyghur victims, the extremely close vote highlights the growing number of states willing to take a stand on principle and shine a spotlight on China’s sweeping rights violations,” she said.

The Human Rights Council has long faced criticism that countries seen as major rights abusers–such as China, Cuba, Eritrea, and Venezuela–are members of the body, and they often work to shield each other from scrutiny.

Angered by the vote which came despite years of revelations of abuses in Xinjiang, more than 60 Uyghur organizations from 20 countries urged U.N. agencies and experts to take concrete action to adopt a resolution committing to a debate on the Uyghur issue.

“This is a missed opportunity by Council members to hold China to the same standard as other countries,” said Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, in a statement. “The international community cannot fail the victims of the Uyghur genocide.”

“Member states that voted down the action have “blatantly disregarded previously-accepted principles of objectivity, dialogue, impartiality, non-discrimination and non-selectivity within the Human Rights Council,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project based in Washington, D.C.

“This failure on the part of Council members does not preclude action by other U.N. agencies, the global business community, and governments, nor does it cast doubt on the findings from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which found that abuses faced by Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples ‘may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity,’” he said in a statement.

If the vote had passed, the debate could have led to a resolution supporting a probe into Xinjiang, said Rushan Abbas, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Uyghurs.

“However, some member states have adopted China’s genocide denial,” she said in a statement. “They should consider the consequences of allowing one powerful country to effectively have impunity for committing genocide.”

CFU urged countries not to be influenced by the Chinese government threats, manipulations or propaganda that has denied severe rights abuses involving Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang. 

The U.S. and parliaments in several Western countries have declared that China’s repression in Xinjiang amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity.

Uyghur rights groups also called on Volker Türk, the U.N.’s new rights chief to address the issue and to present his predecessor’s report to the Human Rights Council.


'A dire day for multilateralism'

Western democracies that had backed the U.S. proposal for debate of the report also expressed dismay over the voting outcome.

“Today is a dire day for multilateralism: China has prevented a mere debate on the HR situation in Xinjiang in the #HRC, tweeted Germany’s U.N. mission in Geneva. “However: we will not turn a blind eye and continue to work for the indivisibility of #HumanRights worldwide.”

HRW’s Richardson also called on Türk to implement the recommendations in Bachelet’s report and hold Beijing to account for its maltreatment of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs.

“Nothing will erase the stain of China’s crimes against humanity, laid bare by a recent report of former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet,” she said. “We urge incoming High Commissioner Volker Türk to brief the Council on his office’s report, and we call on states, companies, and the international community to implement the report’s recommendations and hold Chinese authorities accountable for their international crimes.”

Kenneth Roth, HRW’s former executive director who has been sanctioned by the Chinese government, tweeted that the vote was “a shameful moment for the members of the U.N. Human Rights Council as they reject even having a debate about the damning U.N. report on the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur/Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.”

In another tweet, Roth said it was “hard to know where to begin to apportion blame” and noted that Latin American democracies abstained from voting, “giving in to China's blackmail.”

Muslim-majority Indonesia turned its back on the Muslims of Xinjiang, India refused to support a debate, and Ukraine abstaining while seeking help on Russia's war crimes, he said.

Argentina, where lawyers acting on behalf of two Uyghur rights groups filed a criminal case alleging that China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity through its repressive policies targeting Muslims in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region, also abstained from casting a vote.

Beijing responded by calling the resolution’s defeat a “victory.”

Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, tweeted: “The #HRC51 voted down the #Xinjiang-related draft decision filed by the U.S. and several other Western countries. This is a victory for developing countries and a victory for truth & justice.” HRC51 refers to the Council’s current 51st regular session.

Ambassador Michèle Taylor, the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council, expressed dismay over the resolution's defeat.

We are disappointed that, by a narrow margin, the Council was unable to agree to hold a discussion about serious human rights concerns raised in the recent independent assessment by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that is part of a growing body of expressed concerns by credible sources," she said in a statement on Thursday.

The U.S. would continue to work closely with its partners to seek justice and accountability for victims of human rights abuses and violations, including the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, she said. 

When asked for comment on the resolution's defeat, U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel expressed disappointed that the Council was unable to agree to hold a discussion.

It is very clear to everybody based on that assessment of what is going on in Xinjiang, he said. And we’re going to continue to remain undeterred in our commitment to defend human rights, and we’ll continue to insist that the Human Rights Council can be a meaningful forum and a vehicle to discuss and hold countries accountable for human rights violations.

Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

The story was updated to add comments by Ambassador Michèle Taylor and Vedant Patel.


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