The UN Human Rights Council on Thursday rejected a Western-led motion to hold a debate on China’s alleged human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang in a victory for Beijing as it seeks to avoid further scrutiny.
The defeat – 19 against, 17 for, 11 abstentions – is only the second time in the council’s 16-year history that a motion has been defeated and is seen by observers as a setback for accountability efforts, the Western moral authority on human rights and the credibility of the United Nations itself.
United States, Canada and Britain were among the countries that introduced the motion.
“It’s a disaster. It’s really disappointing,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, whose mother died in a camp and whose two brothers are missing.
“We will never give up but we are really disappointed with the reaction of Muslim countries,” he added.
Qatar, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan rejected the motion, the latter citing the risk of alienating China. Phil Lynch, director of the International Service for Human Rights, called the vote tally “shameful” on Twitter.
The Chinese envoy had warned ahead of the vote that the motion would set a precedent for scrutinizing other countries’ human rights records.
“Today, China is targeted. Tomorrow, any other developing country will be targeted,” Chen Xu said, adding that a debate would lead to “new confrontations.”
The UN human rights office released a long-delayed report on August 31 that revealed serious human rights violations in Xinjiang that could amount to crimes against humanity, increasing pressure on the China.
Rights groups accuse Beijing of abuses against Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority that numbers around 10 million people in the western region of Xinjiang, including the heavy use of forced labor in internment camps. The United States has accused China of genocide. Beijing vigorously denies any abuse.
The motion is the first time the rights record of China, a powerful permanent member of the Security Council, has been on the council’s agenda. The article stoked divisions and a diplomat said states were under “tremendous pressure” from Beijing to support China.
Countries like Britain, the United States and Germany have pledged to continue working for accountability despite Thursday’s results.
But campaigners said rejecting such a narrow motion, which stopped short of asking for an inquiry, would make it difficult to get it back on the agenda.
Marc Limon of Universal Rights Group said it was a “serious miscalculation”, citing the timing which coincides with a Western-led action motion against Russia.
“It’s a blow to the council’s credibility and a clear victory for China,” he said. “Many developing countries will see this as an adjustment to Western dominance in the UN human rights system.”
The event raised political dilemmas for many of the poor countries on the 47-member council who are loath to publicly challenge China for fear of jeopardizing investments.
Others probably wanted to avoid scrutiny themselves.