by Nina Larson

A watchdog said Thursday an independent UN expert took a large payment from Beijing, alleging that she helped China “whitewash” its treatment of the Uyghur minority and demanding she return the money.

Alena Douhan. Photo: Supplied.

Alena Douhan, the United Nations special rapporteur focused on the negative impact of unilateral sanctions, received a US$200,000-contribution from Beijing in 2021, Geneva-based rights group UN Watch said, pointing to a UN filing.

In a statement, the group called on her “to return US$200,000 that she received from the Chinese state while she helped the regime whitewash its ethnic cleansing of the Uyghurs”.

Douhan, a law professor from Belarus, is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2020. She does not speak on behalf of the UN.

Her mandate is controversial, with rights activists accusing the expert of playing into authoritarian regimes’ propaganda by blaming their countries’ woes on Western sanctions.

She has visited countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe, and concluded a trip to Iran this week, after which she decried the “devastating humanitarian impact of sanctions”, insisting they were illegal and should be lifted. 

‘Propaganda’

UN Watch said Douhan had headlined a Beijing-sponsored online “propaganda” event last September under the banner “Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land”, referring to the northwestern region that is home to the Uyghurs.

The US government and lawmakers in a number of other Western countries have labelled China’s treatment of the Uygur minority in Xinjiang “genocide” — a charge Beijing vehemently denies.

A verified drone shot from 2019 of Uighur prisoners being transferred by train. File photo: Weibo.

Rights groups say that at least one million mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in “re-education camps” in the region, and face widespread rights abuses, including forced sterilisation and forced labour.

China says it is running vocational training centres in the region designed to counter extremism.

During the September event, Chinese diplomats and officials accused Western countries of a smear campaign, UN Watch said.

And a video was screened claiming that “Xinjiang’s policies conform to international labour and human rights standards and support the will of all ethnic groups to live a better life”, it said. 

UN Watch also said Douhan had participated in two other China-backed events last year targeting Western sanctions, which were co-sponsored by among others Belarus, Iran, Venezuela and Russia.

Photo: United Nations.

“It beggars belief that a supposed independent human rights expert can accept money from regimes at the same time as she endorses their events designed to cover up atrocities,” UN Watch chief Hillel Neuer said in the statement.

The Chinese contribution to Douhan was publicly divulged in a March filing to the UN General Assembly detailing the activities of all the independent experts and working groups appointed by the rights council.

Contacted by AFP, a UN rights office spokesman stressed that the experts do not receive financial remuneration and “undertake to uphold independence, efficiency, competence and integrity through probity, impartiality, honesty and good faith.”

The experts’ mandates are funded through the regular UN budget, but “the resources are never sufficient for the volume of work entrusted to them,” he said, explaining the need for voluntary contributions earmarked for specific mandates.

A number of countries provide contributions to specific mandates they support, but China’s contribution to Douhan was by far the largest she was given last year.

She also received $150,000 from Russia and US$25,000 from Qatar, the filing showed.

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