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How to Stop China Killing Human Rights at the U.N.

The Uyghur people and the human rights system depend on principled states taking action.

By , an international human rights lawyer and former U.S. State Department official.
People in light blue shirts that say "FREE UYGHUR" and flags stand in front of a building.
People in light blue shirts that say "FREE UYGHUR" and flags stand in front of a building.
Uyghurs demonstrate against China outside of United Nations offices during the Universal Periodic Review of China by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Nov. 6, 2018. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 6, the United Nations Human Rights Council rejected a resolution to hold a debate on China’s violations of human rights in Xinjiang. The vote was spurred by a meticulous report published five weeks earlier by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which detailed Chinese state-directed persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities that “may constitute … crimes against humanity.”

The resolution—which failed by 19 votes to 17, with 11 abstentions—represented the first formal attempt to hold China accountable for its massive and ongoing human rights abuses at the Human Rights Council since the body’s inception in 2006. According to the OHCHR report, these violations include mass arbitrary detention, widespread torture, sexual violence, coercive birth suppression, family separation, forced labor, and repression of religious and cultural practices in Xinjiang.

The council’s failure to carry out its most basic function as the U.N.’s premier venue for the promotion and protection of human rights stands as an indictment of the council itself—and the human rights system it purports to anchor. It also demonstrates the deep success of China’s decadeslong project to rewire the normative framework of international human rights and replace it with the idea that human rights are negotiable and subject to the prerogatives of states. The Xinjiang resolution’s rejection should be a wake-up call to concerned states on the need to redouble efforts at the U.N. to preserve the foundational principle that every individual around the world is entitled to fundamental rights.

On Oct. 6, the United Nations Human Rights Council rejected a resolution to hold a debate on China’s violations of human rights in Xinjiang. The vote was spurred by a meticulous report published five weeks earlier by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which detailed Chinese state-directed persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities that “may constitute … crimes against humanity.”

The resolution—which failed by 19 votes to 17, with 11 abstentions—represented the first formal attempt to hold China accountable for its massive and ongoing human rights abuses at the Human Rights Council since the body’s inception in 2006. According to the OHCHR report, these violations include mass arbitrary detention, widespread torture, sexual violence, coercive birth suppression, family separation, forced labor, and repression of religious and cultural practices in Xinjiang.

The council’s failure to carry out its most basic function as the U.N.’s premier venue for the promotion and protection of human rights stands as an indictment of the council itself—and the human rights system it purports to anchor. It also demonstrates the deep success of China’s decadeslong project to rewire the normative framework of international human rights and replace it with the idea that human rights are negotiable and subject to the prerogatives of states. The Xinjiang resolution’s rejection should be a wake-up call to concerned states on the need to redouble efforts at the U.N. to preserve the foundational principle that every individual around the world is entitled to fundamental rights.

China’s campaign to subvert the existing human rights paradigm has made headway due to the acquiescence of many countries that style themselves as defenders of the U.N.’s human rights system. Consider the Human Rights Council vote in March 2018 to adopt China’s proposed resolution on “Promoting Mutually Beneficial Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights.” The resolution effectively sublimates individual rights to both collective rights (such as the “right” to development) and a state’s sovereignty. Only the United States voted against it. Despite lobbying by the United States and human rights organizations, 13 countries including Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom abstained. Some commentators even argued the resolution provided an entry point for human rights engagement with China.

By enshrining fawning references to “Xi Jinping Thought” into the U.N.’s human rights lexicon, the 2018 resolution represented a major step forward in China’s efforts to reshape the U.N. human rights system. China’s ability to handpick the report-writing team meant the final report required by the resolution framed “mutually beneficial cooperation”—an undefined term in the human rights lexicon—just as Xi does: privileging sovereignty, endorsing noninterference in internal affairs, and delegitimizing approaches to human rights protection that involve criticism of a regime’s abuses.

The United States and its allies need to be more creative in leveraging aspects of the U.N. system where they have structural advantages.

It took longer than it should have for the international human rights community to respond to China’s corrosive campaign. When China ran an updated version of the resolution in 2020, even without the United States in the council, it faced much stiffer resistance, passing with support from only 23 countries, while 16 countries voted against it. Both member states and civil society representatives aggressively called out the resolution for promoting a view of the council as a mere “service provider” for governments and said it damaged efforts toward accountability by ignoring the fact that governments often commit human rights violations. By the 2022 Human Rights Council session, resistance to the resolution had grown to the point that China chose not to run the resolution again and risk losing a vote. This was part of a broader pushback in New York and Geneva as evidence of Beijing’s abuses in Xinjiang has grown.

The increasing resistance to the “mutually beneficial cooperation” resolution demonstrates how the losing vote on the Xinjiang resolution need not be fatal. But combating China’s pernicious influence at the U.N. and its violations in Xinjiang requires a long-term strategy and sustained commitment by principled countries. They will have to use political capital at the U.N. in ways that may be uncomfortable. This includes being willing to break consensus on benign-sounding resolutions that include Xi’s human rights ideology, aggressively negotiating to remove this problematic language from texts in the first place and holding other states accountable for China-related votes. In particular, the developed countries that have led this effort will need to build a cadre of allies from the global south that are willing to join them in voting against resolutions that advance China’s agenda and for resolutions that call China out for its abuses.

The United States and its allies also need to be more creative in leveraging aspects of the U.N. system where they have structural advantages. One such venue is the International Labour Organization (ILO), which seeks to protect human and labor rights. The ILO is one of the U.N.’s most effective human rights mechanisms because in this body, civil society—in the form of labor-union and employer groups—has the same seat at the table as member states. This unique tripartite structure creates extensive opportunity for oversight on the ground. Because labor and employer representatives can file complaints directly, ILO mechanisms do not require political will from member states to initiate action, potentially mitigating China’s tactic of bribing and bullying other countries. The lack of independent trade unions or employer sectors in authoritarian states such as China also puts those states at a disadvantage.

In 2020 and 2021, the International Trade Union Confederation—the leading workers’ group at the ILO—formally submitted complaints detailing China’s state-directed discriminatory forced labor of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities. The complaints triggered a process that could ultimately lead to an investigation by an ILO Commission of Inquiry, which has the power to recommend sanctions if a government is found in violation of its treaty obligations and refuses to take remediating steps. (As an ILO founding member, China is subject to this enforcement mechanism for any of the ILO treaty instruments it has ratified.) While the ILO has received hundreds of complaints since its founding in 1919, it has only authorized 35 commissions and recommended sanctions just once, in the case of Myanmar.

In June, the ILO formally approved a “technical advisory mission” to follow up on the International Trade Union Confederation’s allegations against China. This step fell short of the high-level mission some countries wanted, but China will have to accept a visit from the technical team before the International Labour Conference convenes next June. Failure to cooperate will only increase pressure within the ILO to launch a commission. Given the gravity and persistence of forced labor in Xinjiang, any credible technical mission is likely to recommend further investigation. Either way, the ILO process will continue to grind away.

China seems to have been late to realize the dangers posed by the ILO system. While it has been attempting to increase its influence in the ILO using the same tactics it has with other U.N. agencies, both the ILO secretariat—dominated by labor law experts and alumni of independent trade unions—and the supervisory process have proved resilient. Like the OHCHR’s Xinjiang report, the ILO’s committees have also relied heavily on survivor testimony and the Chinese government’s own documents, as well as reporting from civil society and U.N. human rights special procedures. The OHCHR report on Xinjiang will feature heavily in upcoming ILO action on China, and the interplay between the ILO and OHCHR is likely to continue.

Meaningful progress on these issues is thus more likely to come from the ILO than other parts of the U.N. system in the near term, but this does not mean concerned states should give up on venues such as the Human Rights Council. While the October resolution failed, the number of countries that supported it is sufficient to request a special session through a letter to the council president. Countries worried that a precedent of having no product at the end of the special session will undermine the Human Rights Council are underestimating the value of continually forcing China to defend its behavior and expend political capital and diplomatic resources to that end.

Resolutions on Beijing’s abuses in the old U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the council’s predecessor, were also regularly rejected, but for many years losing these votes did not stop concerned member states from continuing to try. Rather, these member states stopped introducing resolutions, instead preferring to engage China through bilateral and “minilateral” human rights dialogues behind closed doors. Nearly 20 years of dialogues and other less confrontational attempts to engage China on human rights have manifestly failed. Meanwhile, human rights advocates increasingly have lost faith in the international human rights system when it comes to holding China accountable—not because resolutions failed, but because countries and the system stopped trying.

Concerned countries must learn the right lessons from these past experiences and embrace the paradoxical idea of winning by losing—using every opportunity they have to highlight the grave dangers posed by China’s authoritarian approach to human rights and the U.N. system. They will need to be strategically focused and tactically flexible, using venues across the U.N. in concert with and alongside the Human Rights Council, to present a consistent message that compels China to expend resources to respond. The opportunities are there, but the biggest question remains whether those member states and others in the human rights community have the political will to ensure China fails in its efforts to avoid accountability and hollow out the international human rights framework. Both the Uyghur people and the human rights project depend on it.

Kelley E. Currie is an international human rights lawyer and former U.S. State Department official. Twitter: @KelleyCurrie

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