The UN Human Rights Council has narrowly voted against holding a debate on China’s systematic campaign of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, despite a recently released UN report finding clear evidence of widespread crimes committed by the Chinese state. This represents a blow for civil society’s hopes that the Council will live up to its mandate and challenge impunity, however powerful the offender may be. The government of China may well see this as mission accomplished in its mission to block international action – but civil society will keep up the scrutiny and pressure for the report’s recommendations to be followed up.

It was so close to being a pivotal moment in the quest to hold powerful states to account for human rights abuses. But on 6 October the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council voted narrowly against a resolution to hold a debate on the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang region. With 17 votes for, 19 against and 11 abstentions, the proposal fell. The 47 member states of the world’s peak human rights body faced a test – and many of them were found wanting.

China’s campaign pays off

The resolution came in the wake of the UN’s much-delayed report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. Published just minutes before the end of the term of the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the report found credible evidence of torture, sexual and gender-based violence, forced birth control, arbitrary and discriminatory detention and discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds. It concluded that these may constitute crimes under international law, particularly crimes against humanity.

Civil society had long offered evidence of China’s genocidal campaign against Xinjiang’s Muslim-majority population. The UN report made it official. The government of China predictably lashed out. Its long campaign to supress the report having failed, it accused the UN of pedalling disinformation and called into question the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Civil society was clear that the UN’s human rights scrutiny mustn’t end with the publication of a report. It urged the Human Rights Council to take the next steps – to discuss the report and then commit to setting up an international mechanism to monitor the human rights situation on an ongoing basis.

Even though the resolution was far more moderate than civil society might have wanted – merely calling for the Human Rights Council to hold a debate – China pushed back with all its might. Chinese President Xi Jinping is determined to remove any obstacles against the seamless confirmation of his third term at the Chinese Communist Party’s congress later this month.

The government of China stepped up the pressure on Council members to vote against or abstain, insisting it should be the recipient of global south solidarity against what it characterised as a western conspiracy. The economic ties China has leveraged through its Belt and Road Initiative of infrastructure development doubtless came into play too.

There were multiple votes China could always count on. States such as Cameroon, Cuba, Eritrea, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela relentlessly suppress human rights at home and have no interest in encouraging international accountability that could turn against them.

This highlights a persistent challenge with the Human Rights Council: although its member states are meant to uphold the highest human rights standards, many of them are systematic domestic rights abusers and stand accused of taking part in the Council not to enable it to perform its functions but to undermine it.

On the other side were the states that sponsored the resolution, among them France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA. It was in the middle ground where the vote would be won or lost. And the results were disappointing.

Despite the fact that China’s abuses are targeted at the Muslim population, a string of Muslim-majority states – including the world’s two biggest, Indonesia and Pakistan – voted to turn a blind eye. Indonesia’s delegation made a statement expressing deep concern about the treatment of Muslim people in Xinjiang – but then voted to block action to help them.

African and Latin American states largely chose to look the other way too, with Honduras, Paraguay and Somalia standing out as the honourable exceptions.

The 47 member states of the world’s peak human rights body faced a test – and many of them were found wanting.

Perhaps the most disappointing choice was made by Ukraine, which is rightly calling on the world to hold Russia to account for the gross crimes it’s committing during its invasion. In this context, Ukraine’s decision to abstain was inexplicable. The following day, without explanation, it requested its vote be registered as a vote for the resolution. This wouldn’t have made a difference to the outcome, but it perhaps suggests Ukraine’s delegation realised a mistake had been made – particularly since it would soon call for the support of the same states it hadn’t voted with to pass a resolution on Russia’s human rights abuses.

Time and again states that voted against or abstained fell back on the mantra that the Council should operate on the basis of dialogue and consultation rather than confrontation – but dialogue is the very thing they worked to prevent. Their failure to act in the face of blatant human rights violations makes them complicit.

Civil society keeping up the pressure

This could have been a big moment for the Human Rights Council. The human rights record of one of the world’s most powerful states was on its agenda. More encouragingly, the same Council session passed a resolution to establish an independent monitoring mechanism on Russia, which like China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. That these resolutions were brought, and in the case of Russia carried, should at least set a precedent that no state is too big to be scrutinised.

But its failure to act on China can’t be considered as anything other than a setback for the Council, disappointing the hopes civil society invests in it. For China, it sent all the wrong signals: that it can expect to enjoy continued impunity and that its strongarm tactics against other states are paying off.

It falls to civil society to stop China getting away with it. The validity of the report’s recommendations isn’t changed by the Council’s vote. Civil society will keep up the call to release all those arbitrarily imprisoned in Xinjiang, investigate allegations of rights violations and review China’s national security and counter-terrorism policies.

Civil society will also look to the UN’s new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, to commit to following up on the report and keeping China’s violations on the UN’s agenda. The Council’s negative vote simply can’t be the end of the matter. The many victims of China’s human rights violations deserve far better.


  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should commit to following up on the recommendations of the UN’s report on China.
  • Democratic states should continue to push for China’s actions in Xinjiang to be recognised as genocide.
  • Civil society should maintain scrutiny of China’s human rights violations and keep up the call for international action.

Cover photo by Reuters/Denis Balibouse via Gallo Images