U.N. Chief Rebuffs U.S. Request to Skip Beijing Olympics

U.S. envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield presses António Guterres to confront China over rights abuses in Xinjiang.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Olympic British speed skater Farrell Treacy in Beijing.
Olympic British speed skater Farrell Treacy in Beijing.
British speed skater Farrell Treacy practices at an Olympic stadium in Beijing on Feb. 1. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

America’s top envoy to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, privately discouraged U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres from attending the Beijing Olympics. But when the U.N. chief made it clear he intended to go, she asked him to at least raise concerns about China’s human rights record, according to three U.N.-based diplomatic sources briefed on the exchange. Guterres’s office declined to say whether he would raise human rights during his trip.

The exchange reflected mounting U.S. concern about what it views as the relative silence of top U.N. officials in response to the mass internment, cultural repression, and forced labor of millions of ethnic Uyghurs in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. The United States has characterized China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide, but Guterres has taken a far more cautious approach to Beijing’s policies toward its Muslim minority in western China.

The U.S. outreach comes as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, has resisted entreaties from the United States and Europe to immediately release a long-awaited report from her office on the situation in Xinjiang.

America’s top envoy to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, privately discouraged U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres from attending the Beijing Olympics. But when the U.N. chief made it clear he intended to go, she asked him to at least raise concerns about China’s human rights record, according to three U.N.-based diplomatic sources briefed on the exchange. Guterres’s office declined to say whether he would raise human rights during his trip.

The exchange reflected mounting U.S. concern about what it views as the relative silence of top U.N. officials in response to the mass internment, cultural repression, and forced labor of millions of ethnic Uyghurs in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. The United States has characterized China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide, but Guterres has taken a far more cautious approach to Beijing’s policies toward its Muslim minority in western China.

The U.S. outreach comes as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, has resisted entreaties from the United States and Europe to immediately release a long-awaited report from her office on the situation in Xinjiang.

Bachelet’s spokesperson, Rupert Colville, told reporters on Dec. 10, 2021, that the U.N. was “finalizing” the report and that it would likely be published in a matter of weeks. But the report has yet to be made public, raising concerns among Western governments and human rights advocates that the U.N. may be holding back the report to shield Beijing from the embarrassment of having to confront international condemnation on the eve of the Olympics. On Jan. 28, Colville confirmed that the report would not be released before the Olympics.

Guterres is planning to attend the Olympic opening ceremony on Feb. 4, putting the U.N.’s imprimatur on an event that the United States and other Western governments are either boycotting or declining to send government representatives to in protest of China’s human rights policies, particularly in Xinjiang. Guterres defended his decision to go by informing Thomas-Greenfield that he could hardly afford to offend China, a leading U.N. power, after having angered the Chinese government for participating in U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy, which included an appearance by Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang, according to two diplomatic sources. He has no plans to deliver a public address during the visit, and it is unclear whether he will meet with senior Chinese officials, according to a U.N. diplomatic source.

“The Olympic Games is an extremely important event, and it’s an event that symbolizes the role of sports in bringing people together and in promoting peace,” Guterres told reporters last month. “It is in this strict context and without any political dimension that I intend to be present in the opening—with this message that the Olympic Games must be an instrument for peace in the world.”

The United States, which has decided not to send a government delegation to Beijing, has not formally lobbied other countries not to attend, but it has made clear that it believes the Beijing Olympics should not be treated as business as usual. A U.S. spokesperson, who requested anonymity to address confidential diplomatic discussions, said: “We’ve made our views clear to the secretary-general, and we have repeatedly, publicly expressed our grave concern about the situation in Xinjiang.”

Human rights advocates have also objected to Guterres’s planned visit, saying it will provide a PR boost to a country that has committed some of the world’s most appalling rights abuses.

“Guterres has shown himself utterly unwilling to criticize China’s human rights record, even though Beijing has committed crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Guterres’s attendance at the Olympic Games, he fears, is “going to be one big gift to Xi Jinping to sportswash his human rights crimes. I’ve lost hope that Guterres will say anything critical about Beijing, because he hasn’t so far.”

Guterres has vigorously defended his response to the human rights situation in China, characterizing the criticism as unfair. “I don’t think anyone has been more persistent and more clear in talking to the Chinese authorities in relation to this issue than myself,” he told reporters in 2019. “It is absolutely not true that I’ve only done discreet diplomacy.”

The U.N.’s deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, said Guterres “considers the Olympic Games as an important expression of unity, mutual respect and cooperation between different cultures, religions and ethnicities. The Olympic ideal is something that we must cherish and is very much in line with the values of the United Nations.”

For its part, China has vigorously challenged the widely documented reports of abuses in Xinjiang, saying its reeducation programs have helped curb terrorism. “We think what we have done does not violate the human rights in Xinjiang,” said Jing Quan, a diplomat at the Chinese Embassy in the United States. “On the contrary, we think we have protected the majority of Xinjiang people’s human rights. We have prevented Xinjiang from becoming another ISIS,” he said.

The development comes amid growing sensitivity in Beijing over the prospects for international criticism of its policies in Xinjiang. In a recent press conference, Yang Shu, the deputy director-general of China’s Olympic organizing committee, told reporters that athletes who speak out on controversial political matters risked punishment by Chinese authorities or the International Olympic Committee (IOC). He cited a regulation in the IOC Charter, Rule 50, that states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The rule, a version of which was first written in 1975, has since been amended to permit some protests “prior to the start of competitions,” but not on the medals podium.

But China has questioned the right of athletes to engage in any form of protest. “For athletes to participate in the Olympic games they should follow the spirit and requirements provided in the Olympic Charter and the politicization of sports is one of the things that is opposed by the Olympic Charter,” Yang told reporters in a virtual press conference last month.

“Any expression that is in line with Olympic spirit will be protected, and anything, any behavior, speeches against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and the regulations, are also subjected to certain punishment,” he said. Among the possible punishments, he added, would be the cancellation of an athlete’s accreditation to the games.

David Kaye, a former U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression who helped revise the Olympic guidelines before the Beijing Games, said the Chinese threat was inconsistent with the spirit of the IOC’s new policy and sent a chilling message on the limits of free speech, particularly since it is unclear precisely which remarks China would consider unacceptable.

“It’s classic prior restraint. It intimidates athletes to stay quiet,” Kaye said. “Athletes and people associated with athletes should be free and not subject to any punishment.”

Kaye said the IOC agreed to uphold athletes’ rights to free speech, as long as it was not during official ceremonies, during competition on the field, or in the Olympic village. For instance, athletes are permitted to freely express their views in the media centers, during press conferences, in interviews, and on social media. But those assurances, he said, are likely to be overshadowed by China’s threats.

“I think the damage is done already,’” Kaye said. “The IOC should have stepped in and said, ‘Look, we have these guidelines.’”

The U.N., meanwhile, is facing increasing pressure from the United States and other Western governments to confront China for its failure to allow U.N. scrutiny of its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Bachelet has been seeking permission to travel to Xinjiang to assess the human rights of the region’s Muslim minorities since September 2018. Since then, Beijing has repeatedly stated its willingness to host Bachelet in Xinjiang, but only under constraints that the U.N. rights leader found unacceptable.

“The [U.N.] Secretary-General is hopeful that the present contacts between the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Chinese Mission in Geneva will allow for the invitation to the High Commissioner to visit China, including Xinjiang, to lead to a credible mission after the Olympics,” Haq, the U.N. deputy spokesperson, added.

Just last month, the Chinese Mission to the U.N. in Geneva issued a statement saying it would be prepared to host Bachelet on a “friendly visit” to the region, but that such a visit “shall in no way become the so-called ‘investigation’ under the presumption of guilt,” Reuters reported.

In a press conference on Jan. 28, Colville said that Bachelet will continue negotiations with the Chinese government in the next few months.

“There are still ongoing discussions about a possible visit during the first half of this year, but clearly it’s not going to take place before the start of the Olympics,” Colville told reporters at the briefing in Geneva. “But the parameters of that visit are still very much under discussion, and there’s no final decision or agreement.”

He said that in order for the visit to go ahead, U.N. human rights officials would require “unsupervised access to a wide range of civil society actors and locations, as well as high-level engagement with government officials. So that’s what we would see as necessary for such a visit.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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