Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 559, 13 October 2022

China: UNHRC proceeding on Xinjiang
Avishka Ashok

In the news

On 6 October, the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council rejected the draft resolution on holding a debate on the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. In the 47-member council, 19 members voted against the motion while 17 voted for the debate. Over 11 countries, including India, Brazil, Mexico, Armenia, Malaysia, and Ukraine, chose to abstain from voting. Pakistan, Qatar, UAE, and Indonesia along with Bolivia, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Cuba, Eritrea, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Senegal, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Venezuela voted against the motion.

Several human rights groups expressed their disappointment at the rejection of the proposal. Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard said: “For Council member states to vote against even discussing a situation where the UN itself says crimes against humanity may have occurred makes a mockery of everything the Human Rights Council is supposed to stand for.”

Issues at large

First, the resolution on Xinjiang. The motion to hold the debate was initiated by the US, the UK, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Canada and co-sponsored by Turkey after the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang in August 2022. The report was based on the former High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang in May 2022. The resolution aimed to put Xinjiang (China) on the agenda for the next regular session scheduled to take place in March 2023. The debate was aimed at pushing for an investigation into China’s treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region. In the 16-year history of the Council, the proposed debate on Xinjiang was the second motion to be rejected. If passed, it would have been the first time that a permanent member of the UN Security Council was put on the council's agenda for debate.

Second, setback for the West. Since 2017, the UN, the US, the UK, the EU, Canada, Australia, and other global think tanks have published numerous reports on China’s aggressive policies against the Uighurs. Japan and the EU have passed resolutions condemning forced labour in Xinjiang and the exploitation of minorities in China. The US has also passed the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act in December 2021 and banned the sale of products from Xinjiang. Human rights defenders have expressed their concerns over the rejection of the resolution and believe that the move will fail the efforts of the West to hold China accountable for its actions. They fear that it may also act as a precedent for other countries to get away with crimes against humanity.

Third, silence of the Islamic countries. The President of the World Uighur Council, Dolkun Isa, expressed his disappointment over the rejection of the resolution as many Islamic countries also voted against the motion. The Uighurs, being a Muslim minority in China, had expected Islamic countries to extend their support. However, amongst the OIC members, 12 countries voted against the resolution while all African countries followed China to reject the resolution. In both cases, Somalia was the only exception who voted for the debate. Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries that has spoken against the treatment of Uighurs. Islamic countries have often condemned acts against Muslims in foreign countries but stayed silent on Xinjiang. The reasons may be two-fold: first, the Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group which follows Sunni Islamic traditions but originate from Central Asia. Second, most OIC countries have strong relations with China and are dependent on Beijing for a number of infrastructural and trade projects. China was also a part of OIC’s 48th session of the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Pakistan in March 2022.

Fourth, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America’s growing support for China. The rejection of the resolution brought forth strong support for China from Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. For decades, Western countries have speculated about China's intentions behind the unconditional loans and infrastructural assistance provided to countries from these continents. It was assumed that blind support for China in international institutions was one of Beijing’s objectives. It appears that China has created an irreplaceable identity for itself in Africa through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), in Latin America through the China-Latin America Cooperation, and in Southeast Asia through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Fifth, China’s responses regarding Xinjiang. China had publicly denounced the OHCHR’s report on Xinjiang, terming it an orchestrated patchwork of disinformation aimed at containing the country. The Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected the report and declared it to be illegal and invalid. It also released a 131-page-long refutation of the report within minutes of the OHCHR’s report. China also gathered the support of 20 other countries and jointly rejected the report. Beijing also warned that it would withdraw support from the UNHRC body for publishing the report.

In perspective

The failure of the UNHRC to obtain a simple majority to initiate the debate on alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang shows China’s increasing influence on the international order and the changing political landscape. The present support for China from across the world is indicative of its rising power. The results of the current resolution also demonstrate that countries are increasingly succumbing to China’s financial strategy.

China seems to be winning the war on Xinjiang as the issue follows a similar pattern as others such as the forced rule in Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong. Although the global community revolted, expressed concern, imposed sanctions, and attempted to prevent China from taking over these regions, China has successfully integrated them into the country.

The rejection of the resolution is a huge setback for the Uighurs who have been fighting against the system for decades. Additionally, given previous responses from China’s to similar reports and resolutions, it is unlikely that Beijing would have act upon a Council debate and changed its strategies in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

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