By Omer Kanat

In 1945, 51 countries founded the United Nations. In the aftermath of the massive suffering of the Second World War, their objectives were simple: peace and security, social and economic progress and human rights.

This month’s election of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the Human Rights Council, the main UN body tasked with protection and promotion of human rights, places these objectives under threat. With Beijing actively undermining universal rights standards and implementing genocidal policies targeting Uyghurs, now is not the time for states to disengage from multilateral organisations. As the country most equipped to stand up to China, the United States should seek election to the Human Rights Council.  

United Nations Human Rights Council. Photo: UN.

On October 13 the UN General Assembly elected China to the 47-member Human Rights Council, the fifth time China has been selected for the council since it was founded in 2006. However, this time it won only 139 votes in comparison to 180 in 2016. This indicates growing concern about China as a responsible global actor and follows the delivery of a statement on October 6 from 39 UN member states expressing grave concern about the fundamental rights of Uyghurs.

The United States was among those 39 nations. Rightfully so. Uyghurs are facing an existential threat which has intensified since 2017. Mass internments, coerced labor, forced sterilizations, and long prison sentences mean no Uyghur family is free from the Chinese government’s genocidal intent. Overseas Uyghurs, among them Uyghur-Americans, have not spoken to loved ones for years for fear that any contact will mean the disappearance of family and friends forever.

Yet the United States has largely taken a bilateral approach towards holding the Chinese state accountable. Legislative and executive action to address atrocities has been unprecedented. The bipartisan Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, signed into law in June 2020, was a milestone in codifying protection from the perpetrators of these atrocity crimes.

The US Departments of the Treasury and Commerce have also imposed sanctions on Chinese government individuals and entities complicit in human rights violations, most notably the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or Bingtuan, a vast commercial and paramilitary organisation administered from Beijing.

Washington DC Capitol building. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

These actions have been celebrated by Uyghurs worldwide whose suffering under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party has long been ignored by the international community. Even more encouraging, it has spurred action in Europe and elsewhere to bring an end to the Uyghurs’ nightmare. In the European Parliament, MEPs are beginning to ask the right questions about the stain of Uyghur forced labor in regional supply chains. In the UK, the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee will hold an inquiry into mass internment camps.

Given this bilateral approach, it should be no surprise that China has taken smothering accountability for human rights violations into the multilateral realm. It is also no secret that under Xi Jinping the PRC has taken an accelerated authoritarian turn, developing a model of political governance characterised by the limitation of individual and collective freedoms. In a cruel irony, the Chinese UN delegation persistently undermines Human Rights Council attempts to investigate human rights violations.

China has failed to answer outstanding requests and reminders from at least 17 UN Working Group Experts. This includes investigations into cultural rights, assembly, enforced disappearances, expression, privacy, and counter terrorism, among others – some of which date back nearly 20 years. Since the June 2018 departure of the United States from the Human Rights Council, China is increasingly getting its own way in the UN.  

File photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, April 2017, showing detainees at a camp in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: RFA, Oct. 2, 2018; cf. WaybackMachine Internet Archive, April 17, 2017.

The United States’ bilateral approach towards holding China to account should include engagement in multilateral human rights bodies. The Human Rights Council is a critical mechanism. There are currently 44 thematic and 12 country mandate holders, all experts in their fields, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to report and advise on such issues around the globe.

According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “They undertake to uphold independence, efficiency, competence and integrity through probity, impartiality, honesty and good faith.” The US should be a leading voice in this undertaking and make good on the UN’s global promise of 1945.  

Multilateral action on holding China’s leadership to account keeps them awake at night. It reminds them that their rule is held together by fear and division. The United States’ bilateral actions to help Uyghurs would be even more potent with multilateral re-engagement. The US should seek election to the Human Rights Council.      


Omer Kanat is the Executive Director, Uyghur Human Rights Project.


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