The Uyghur Equation For China's Human Rights Council
In April each year, five new members of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s ‘Consultative Group’ are elected. This year, as new revelations emerge that accuse multinationals of using forced Uyghur labour in their supply chain, the appointment of China’s Jiang Duan as the member representing the Asia-Pacific region has drawn criticism. Duan, along with delegates from Chad, Slovenia, Mexico and Spain, will be responsible for appointing investigators to look into human rights abuses, such as freedom of speech and religion.
This is not the first time that a state with a questionable record in human rights has been appointed to this important position within the UN’s leading human rights body. Sri Lanka, at the same time as allegedly committing war crimes in the final stages of the civil war, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel have all been members of this Consultative Group since its formation in 2007. Unlike these appointments however, China’s has drawn resounding criticism in Western diplomatic and analyst circles. Sprinkled in among general fears that China is using the UN to further its national interests to the detriment of the US, is mention of a list of human rights abuses the Chinese government is responsible for. While the truth of the latter claims is hard to deny, somehow when these same Western governments continue to perpetrate human rights abuses at home and ignore those committed by their allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, abroad, it is difficult to see condemnations of China as little more than self-serving and hypocritical.
The UNHCR and the Uyghurs
Western duplicity notwithstanding, there are certainly ample reasons to question China’s appointment in the UNHCR. Among the most pressing is China’s continued repression of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang (often referred to as East Turkistan by members of the group and their supporters). One of the Consultative Group’s primary functions is to appoint investigators to look at particular human rights issues, including arbitrary detention and enforced and involuntary disappearances, which are widespread in Xinjiang (An offensive Chinese term given to East Turkistan meaning New Frontier).
Jiang Duan has previously defended the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang and promoted the narrative that Western propaganda is skewing the facts and China is undertaking essential and effective “counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation measures”, which include “setting up of technical and training centres to help the small number of people who are under the influence of extremism to free themselves”.
Of course, “training centres” is a questionable euphemism for vast internment camps that rights groups believe house over one million Uyghurs who could be classified as extremists for simply wearing a headscarf and growing a beard. Furthermore, the seemingly admirable aim of helping this small number “free themselves” obscures the reality that Uyghurs are forced to renounce their religious and political beliefs in favour of orthodoxy, which is far less threatening to a regime adamant to maintain absolute control.
Duan’s seeming denial that a problem exists, threatens to allow the actions of the Chinese government to continue undeterred and further brings into question the efficacy of the UNHCR in upholding the human rights of all.
In this vein, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) was among 82 organisations to sign a petition calling for the appointment to be cancelled.
“The Chinese government is consistently acting against the founding principles of the UN and is wielding its power and influence to undermine human rights and silence criticism of its human rights record,” WUC President Dolkun Isa stated. “The independence and integrity of UN Special Procedures must be protected, their work is important to addressing the crisis in East Turkistan and human rights violations around the world.”
Need for UN Reform
The Uyghur issue, like many human rights issues before it, has highlighted the need to transform the UN into an organisation that is at the service of people rather than the power politics of nation states.
Last October, during the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly, the UK issued a statement on behalf of 23 (mostly Western) countries condemning China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. It was almost immediately followed by a statement submitted by Belarus on behalf of 54 countries praising China’s “counter-terrorism” measures in the province. Both statements were signed by states who had a vested interest in pushing a particular narrative on the Uyghur issue forward. For countries such as the UK and US, weaponising human rights to delegitimise potential rivals and maintain their privileged positions within the international system is a common practice.
For supporters of the Chinese narrative, one attraction is China’s insistence on a state-centric approach to human rights, which prioritises state sovereignty and can justify impeding the work of international organisations such as the UNHCR. Other serial abusers, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, who are similarly inconvenienced by international human rights norms, and those who have been on the receiving end of Western human rights crusades are likely to sympathise with such a notion.
A second attraction is economic in nature. Whether, it is Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s statements that he would not criticise China openly, the Arab World’s silence, or the support of many countries across Africa and Latin America, China’s economic tentacles through projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative spread wide and mean that the cost of speaking out is often, simply calculated to be too high.
Caught in the middle are the Uyghurs who, abandoned by the international community, now risk also being shut out of the UN’s primary human rights body. If the UN wants to be taken seriously as an entity that can combat the worst of human rights abuses, it has to become truly impartial and not allow states to dictate where and when human rights matter.