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Friday, February 3, 2023
NEW YORK, Oct 3 2022 (IPS) - This week is a momentous one for the world’s premier human rights body. At stake is a resolution to decide whether the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva can hold a debate on a recently released UN report.
The report concludes that rights violations by China’s government in its Xinjiang region ‘may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity’.
Unsurprisingly, China’s government is doing everything in its power to scotch plans for a debate on the report’s contents. Its tactics include intimidating smaller states, spreading disinformation and politicising genuine human rights concerns – the very thing the Human Rights Council was set up to overcome.
The historic report, which affirms that the rights of Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim population are being violated through an industrial-level programme of mass incarceration, systemic torture and sexual violence, attracted huge controversy before it was released on 31 August 2022, minutes before the end of the term of the outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
The report was supposedly ready in September 2021 but so great was the pressure exerted by the Chinese state that it took almost another year for it to be aired. Absurdly, the 46-page report includes a 122 page annex in the form of a rebuttal issued by China, rejecting the findings and calling into question the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Office of the High Commissioner has asserted that the report is based on a rigorous review of documentary evidence with its credibility assessed in accordance with standard human rights methodology. The report’s recommendations are pretty straightforward: prompt steps should be taken to release all people arbitrarily imprisoned in Xinjiang, a full legal review of national security and counter-terrorism policies should be undertaken, and an official investigation should be carried into allegations of human rights violations in camps and detention facilities.
Nevertheless, a proposed resolution to hold a debate on the report’s contents in early 2023 is facing severe headwinds. A number of states inside and outside the Human Rights Council, united by their shared history of impunity for rampant human rights abuses – such as Cuba, Egypt, Laos, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Venezuela – have already rallied to China’s defence in informal negotiations on the brief resolution.
What is most worrying is that China appears to be leaning on smaller states that make up the 47-member Human Rights Council by inverting arguments about politicisation of global human rights issues and projecting itself as the victim of a Western conspiracy to undermine its sovereignty.
If China were to have its way, it would be a huge setback for the Human Rights Council, which was conceived in 2006 as a representative body of states designed to overcome the flaws of ‘declining credibility and lack of professionalism’ that marred the work of the body it replaced, the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his ground-breaking In Larger Freedom report, lamented that states sought membership ‘not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others’.
Human Rights Council members are expected to uphold the highest standards in the protection and promotion of human rights. But our research at CIVICUS shows that eight of the Council’s 47 members have the worst possible civic space conditions for human rights defenders and their organisations to exist. In these countries – Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan – human rights are routinely abused and anyone with the temerity to speak truth to power is relentlessly persecuted.
Regimes that serially abuse human rights may be motivated to block findings of investigations being aired on the international stage, but the international community has a collective responsibility to the victims. Civil society groups are urging Human Rights Council members to stand firm on the call for a debate on the China report.
Human Rights Council member states that assert the importance of human rights and democracy in their foreign policy are expected to vote in favour. Nevertheless, the influence of regional and geo-political blocs within the Council mean that the issue will essentially be settled by the decisions of states such as Argentina, Armenia, Benin, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Paraguay, Senegal, Ukraine and Qatar.
China will undoubtedly pressure these states to try to get them to oppose or abstain in any vote that seeks to advance justice for the Uyghur people.
The stakes are particularly high for China’s mercurial leader, Xi Jinping, who is seeking to anoint himself as president for a third term – after abolishing term limits in 2018 – at the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress, which begins on 16 October.
Recognition of the systematic abuses to which Xi’s administration has subjected the Uyghur people would be considered an international affront to his growing power.
If China were to prevail at the Human Rights Council, it would be another blow to the legitimacy of the UN, which is already reeling from the UN Security Council’s inability to overcome Russia’s permanent member veto to block action on the invasion of Ukraine. So much – for the UN’s reputation, and for the hope that human rights violators, however powerful, will be held to account – is resting on the vote.
Mandeep S. Tiwana, is chief programmes officer and representative to the United Nations at global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.
IPS UN Bureau
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