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The UN Human Rights Council has voted not to debate the treatment of the Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang even after the UN’s human rights office concluded the scale of the alleged abuses there may amount to “crimes against humanity“.

The motion for a debate on the issue was defeated by 19 votes to 17, with 11 countries abstaining in a decision China welcomed and others condemned as “shameful”.

Many of those who voted “no” were Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia, Somalia, Pakistan, UAE and Qatar. Among the 11 countries that abstained were India, Malaysia and Ukraine.

“This is a victory for developing countries and a victory truth and justice,” Hua Chunying, China’s foreign affairs spokesperson tweeted. “Human rights must not be used as a pretext to make up lies and interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, or to contain, coerce & humiliate others.”

The UN first revealed the existence of a network of detention centres in Xinjiang in 2018, saying at least one million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities were being held in the system. China later admitted there were camps in the region, but said they were vocational skills training centres necessary to tackle “extremism”.

Amid leaks of official government documents, investigations by human rights groups and academics, and testimony from Uighurs themselves, China has lobbied hard to prevent any further probe into the situation in Xinjiang.

Former UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, who first called for “unfettered” access to the region in 2018, was only allowed to visit in May, in what appeared to be a tightly-choreographed visit.

Her report (PDF) on the situation was also pushed back and was only released on August 31, minutes before her term was due to end.

While it did not mention the word “genocide”, it found that “serious human rights violations” had been committed, and said “the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

The Uighurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic people who differ in religion, language and culture from China’s majority Han ethnic group.

‘Genocide denial’

The United States, which called for the debate, condemned the latest vote.

“The inaction shamefully suggests some countries are free from scrutiny and allowed to violate human rights with impunity,” Michele Taylor, the US representative to the Human Rights Council, said in a statement. “No country represented here today has a perfect human rights record. 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.”

In the wake of the UN report, Uighur groups had urged the UN Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry to independently examine the treatment of Uighurs and other minorities in China and called on the UN Office on Genocide Prevention to immediately conduct an assessment of the risks of atrocities, including genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

They expressed disappointment at Thursday’s outcome, with the Campaign for Uyghurs noting that Beijing had been “actively trying to suppress” the report “at every level”.

“Some member states have adopted China’s genocide denial,” the group’s Executive Director Rushan Abbas said in a statement. “They should consider the consequences of allowing one powerful country to effectively have impunity for committing genocide.”

Alim Osman, president of the Uighur Association of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, told Al Jazeera he was disappointed and angry at the decision.

“That even a debate on the human rights situation is not allowed by few a countries which have economic ties with the Chinese regime clearly shows on the international stage that their moral obligation to defend human rights is for sale, therefore corrupting the UN itself,” he said. “The UN needs urgent reform.”

Chinese diplomats - all wearing face masks - hold a press conference after the UN rights chief released her long-delayed report on Xinjiang
Beijing has been lobbying hard against the findings of a long-delayed UN report into the situation in Xinjiang, which warned of possible ‘crimes against humanity’ [File: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP]

Human rights groups also condemned the vote.

In a strongly-worded statement, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard said the decision protected the perpetrators rather than the victims of abuses.

“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.” Callamard said in a statement.

“Member states’ silence — or worse, blocking of debate — in the face of the atrocities committed by the Chinese government further sullies the reputation of the Human Rights Council.

“The UN Human Rights Council has today failed the test to uphold its core mission, which is to protect the victims of human rights violations everywhere, including in places such as Xinjiang.”


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