Refusal to discuss the human rights situation in China is a defining moment for the Human Rights Council—and a rebuke to the West
“This is just the beginning of the clash between China and the US at the Human Rights Council. The confrontation will dominate every aspect of international politics for years to come”
The battle for human rights and for liberal values is “a battle we cannot lose,” a senior western ambassador recently told a group of UN correspondents after the publication of the UN High Commissioner Office for Human Rights’ report alleging that “crimes against humanity” had occurred in Xinjiang.
But this afternoon (October 6), in a stinging rebuke of the West, 19 countries of the 47-member state Human Rights Council handed a close victory to Beijing by rejecting a proposal from the Western allies to hold a debate on the alleged rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s Western province. Seventeen countries voted in favor, and 11 abstained. The vote on a "draft decision" prompted a smattering of applause in the room, underlining the moment’s significance.
For many HRC watchers, this was a defining moment. The result confirmed China’s growing influence at the Council and, more broadly, the solidification of the Global South’s anti-US and anti-Western alliance.
“This is just the beginning of the clash between China and the US at the Human Rights Council. The confrontation will dominate every aspect of international politics for years to come,” predicted a Latin American ambassador to The G|O.
CHINA'S GROWING INFLUENCE AT THE COUNCIL
China successfully built a coalition rejecting the draft decision among its usual allies, including many African countries and Persian Gulf States Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. “Let’s not forget that China is now the largest trading partner of more than a hundred countries around the world,” a Western ambassador told The G|O in commenting on the vote. Over the last few weeks, Beijing cemented its coalition by exerting maximum pressure on some countries, a real Chinese show of force,” another diplomat told us.
“Apparently, even a disastrous report on the situation in Xinjiang is not sufficient to find enough countries to back a mere debate on the matter.”
Over the last few days, as the diplomatic activity reached an unprecedented level on both sides–it was the first time since the creation of the Council that China was faced with a country-specific resolution–it was becoming increasingly clear that the Western allies might not be able to rally enough votes in favor of their draft decision to hold a debate on China.
For Olaf Wientzek, Director of the KAS Foundation, “this vote is extremely disappointing but not entirely unexpected: “Apparently, even a disastrous report on the situation in Xinjiang is not sufficient to find enough countries to back a mere debate on the matter. It demonstrates China's influence among many member states of the Human Rights Council, but it is only one part of the explanation: some countries simply do not want to have discussions about problematic developments in a state, fearing they may end up being the target of such a debate.”
It is an argument that the Chinese ambassador himself repeatedly made, telling assembled reporters outside the Council that many country members of the Council understood that if today China was a target, “tomorrow it could be them.”
“No country represented here today has a perfect human rights record,” Michèle Taylor, the US ambassador to the Council, said during the debate. “No country, no matter how powerful, should be excluded from Council discussions. This includes my country—the United States—and it includes the People’s Republic of China.”
A number of Western diplomats also expressed surprise at the fact that countries with a Muslim-majority population voted against the decision, except for Somalia.
WEEKS OF INTENSE DIPLOMATIC ACTIVITY
Today’s vote was the culmination of weeks of intense diplomatic activity and arms-twisting following the publication in August of the OHCHR report on China. And the text submitted to a vote was among the shortest submitted before the Council. It simply read:
“The Human Rights Council,
- Taking note with interest of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, published on 31 August 2022,
- Decides to hold a debate on the situation of human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region at its fifty-second session under agenda item 2.”
Over the last few weeks, Beijing has been busy building a coalition to defeat the proposal. “Should the draft decision be approved, it would make China the new Israel,” an Asian diplomat told The G|O, in reference to the fact that at every session, the HRC devotes a special item on its agenda (Item 7) to discuss the human rights situation in “Palestine and other Arab occupied territories,” the only item on the Council’s agenda which refers to a particular country.
Beijing feared that, if approved, the decision would permanently put the focus on China at the HRC. It went on the offensive immediately after the August 31 pre-midnight epic publication of the report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), repeating in many forms its long-held position that criticism of China represented an unjustifiable “politicization” of human rights pushed by the West and was tantamount to meddling in China’s internal affairs.
Along with the proponents of the draft decision, human rights defenders and activists consider that the HRC would lose some of its legitimacy should it not follow up on the Bachelet report, which, not being mandated by the HRC, requires a decision by the Council to act.
Reacting to today’s vote, Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch wrote: “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.”
ALL AVENUES WERE EXPLORED BY THE WEST—UNSUCCESSFULLY
The HRC’s byzantine procedures were used by the US and its European allies and friends to try to ensure the passage of the draft decision. Rather than demanding that the discussion be held under Item 4, “human rights situations that demand the Council’s attention,” the draft decision called for a debate under Item 2, a lower level of intervention.
Chinese diplomats had correctly predicted that the key to defeating the Western proposal would lie with Beijing’s ability to rally Africa’s support and part of the Latin American vote. Most African countries had already sided with China when, in a letter, Beijing denounced the Bachelet report on Xinjiang. HRC watchers and diplomats had hoped that voting to essentially kill any further action on the Bachelet report in the foreseeable future by the Council might, however, represent a risk some African countries were unwilling to take. They were proven wrong. A new trend in the African voting record at the HRC had shown a worrisome evolution for the West.
In a recent study, Defend Defenders, an NGO, mapped the pattern of votes by African governments and concluded that, in country-specific resolutions, “abstention is African states’ most frequent position. […] Mass African support for country-specific resolutions is only observed for resolutions presented under the Council's agenda item 7 or addressing Palestine.” But the author’s analysis also revealed a trend that ended up favoring China: ‘No’ votes have increased over time when relating to country-specific resolutions, as is the case here. On some of these resolutions, African states made up half or more of the total number of ‘No’ votes.
“This is a new phenomenon,” the study states. Some also point to the growing Russian influence in Africa, as recently illustrated in Burkina Faso. Given the stakes, no diplomatic efforts were spared by the proponents of the draft decision. The Biden administration sent a high-level delegation led by Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights and US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Uzra Zeya to Geneva to rally wavering countries to support the text.
In an attempt to get their support, the draft decision’s proponents insisted that they would not seek to put a permanent focus on China; they were also willing to establish a two-year moratorium before any new resolution or decision would be put forward about China at the Council. In vain, it turned out.