October 7, 2022 | Policy Brief

China wins human rights vote at UN, exposing flaws of Biden’s reform plan

October 7, 2022 | Policy Brief

China wins human rights vote at UN, exposing flaws of Biden’s reform plan

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) this week voted down a proposal from the United States, Britain, Turkey, and others to hold a debate about the Chinese government’s persecution of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province. The vote marked a major diplomatic victory for Beijing and a setback for the Biden administration’s plan to reform the council via deeper engagement.

In August, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a long-delayed report concluding that the Chinese government committed “serious” human rights violations against Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities. Based on witness interviews, the report noted that “allegations of patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention” were “credible,” as were “allegations of individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.”

The report assessed that the “extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention [of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities] … may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The report was released hours before former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stepped down from her position after announcing she  would not seek a second four-year term for “personal reasons.”

Before the report’s release, Chinese diplomats at the UN circulated a petition lobbying other countries to prevent its publication, asserting the report could “intensify politicization and bloc confrontation in the area of human rights.” While this effort failed, Beijing strongly condemned the report’s findings, claiming the “so-called Xinjiang issue is a fabricated lie [made] out of political motivations, and its purpose definitely is to undermine China’s stability and to obstruct China’s development.”

The proposal that came before the UNHRC this week only sought to hold a debate about the report’s findings, stopping short of appointing either an investigative team or a special UN rapporteur to evaluate crimes being committed in Xinjiang. Of the 47 countries that make up the council, 17 voted in favor of the proposal, 19 against, and 11 abstained. Every country that voted against the proposal is a signatory of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a trillion-dollar program that seeks to deepen China’s economic and security interests around the world, primarily through investments in infrastructure.

Notable abstentions included Ukraine, which recently accused Russia of massacring civilians in eastern Ukraine, as well as Armenia, itself the victim of the first genocide of the twentieth century, in which as many as 1.2 million people perished.

The vote’s failure draws into sharp focus the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the council in 2021, reversing a Trump-era withdrawal due to the organization’s deference to dictatorships and double-standards regarding Israel. In announcing Washington’s return to the UNHRC, Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed the “best way to improve the Council, so it can achieve its potential, is through robust and principled U.S. leadership.” Nevertheless, this week’s vote — in which UNHRC members ignored the findings of the UN’s own human rights office — represents a betrayal of the council’s mission. It also underscores how the UNHRC has become a club for the world’s worst dictatorships, who wield their influence to create a culture of impunity for repressive regimes.

Given this week’s vote, the Biden administration and Congress should condition U.S. political support for the UNHRC on mandatory structural reforms. That includes requiring open ballots for all UNHRC elections, which could dissuade UN General Assembly members from casting votes in favor of serial human rights abusers. Beyond strengthening support for groups championing the Uighurs’ cause, the Biden administration should evaluate additional sanctions against Chinese entities and individuals supporting Beijing’s crimes and ramp up enforcement of the Uighur Forced Labor Prevent Act to prevent goods produced in Xinjiang from entering U.S. markets.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s China Program and International Organizations Program. For more analysis from Craig, the China Program, and the International Organizations Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Craig on Twitter @CraigMSingleton. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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