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At the UN review of China’s rights record, States lay bare laundry list of atrocity crimes, generalised crackdown

At a public UN review of its record, China sought to downplay mountains of UN-vetted evidence of its generalised quashing of human rights within its borders, including atrocity crimes against Uyghurs.

As it faced a grilling of their human rights record at the United Nations, Chinese representatives doubled down on their denial of years’ worth of UN-vetted evidence pointing to a long list of human rights abuses, from a general crackdown on human rights defenders in mainland China and Hong Kong to possible crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and the cultural assimilation of Tibetans.

Speaking at China’s session before the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – a UN mechanism where States scrutinise each other’s human rights record and issue recommendations for progress -, a sixty-person Chinese delegation boasted of numerous but dubious achievements, responding to criticism with accusations of ‘interference’ and ‘defamation’. Chinese representatives said they have ratified 51 new laws and revised over 113 other pieces of legislation since their last review, in 2018, claiming to have ensured that ‘no one is left out or left behind’.

Despite China’s efforts to lobby governments into repeating its own talking points and the constraining format of the meeting – which only allowed speakers a slot of 45 seconds -, at least 50 States made numerous, specific and detailed recommendations to Beijing on urgent issues.

These included, among others, explicit calls to place a moratorium on or outright abolish the death penalty; to grant unrestricted access to the country to UN human rights envoys and mandate holders, including in Xinjiang and Tibet; for China to ratify and effectively implement human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; to end widespread censorship and dismantle measures hindering freedom of association, assembly and expression for civil society, journalists and lawyers; to abolish the sweeping Hong Kong ‘National Security’ law ; and to end the widely documented practices of internment and family separations in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Lhadon Tethong of the Tibet Action Institute and Representative of Tibet Advocacy Coalition said: ‘China thinks it can get away with atrocity crimes, including holding one million Tibetan children in a coercive residential school system designed to stamp out their identity, but today’s UN review shows governments are willing to hold Beijing accountable. The dramatic increase in the number of UN Member States who spoke out for Tibet at China’s review speaks to the existential threat China’s assimilationist policies pose to the Tibetan people.’

Echoing a long-standing call by ISHR, six countries, including France, Sweden, and Australia also urged Beijing to put an end to the practice of ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (RSDL) – which UN experts have branded a form of enforced disappearance.

Strikingly, the review saw a surge in recommendations related to China’s lack of meaningful cooperation with the UN system: Argentina was one of 20 countries that called on China to implement key recommendations from impartial UN bodies, including the OHCHR’s Xinjiang report, and findings by the committees on racial discrimination, women’s rights, economic, social and cultural rights.

Some 13 governments, including Global South democracies such as Peru, Paraguay and the Bahamas, also urged China to accept the numerous pending requests for visits by UN ‘Special Procedures’ experts that it must still respond to. Several of them emphasised that Beijing should provide unfettered access and any needed information, with Mexico calling for them to be held ‘in accordance with the UN Terms of Reference [for such visits]’. 

‘By echoing the UN’s own recommendations, and calling for unrestricted access by UN experts, governments from all regions today put the onus on Beijing to demonstrate whether it is willing to be a constructive player in the UN system, and play by the rules,’ said Raphael Viana David, China Programme Manager for ISHR. ‘Recommendations from developing countries counter the perception of unanimous support from the Global South: despite Beijing’s narrative, this is not a ‘West versus China’ matter, but one of respect for basic rights’ Viana added.

In contrast, the lead-up to China’s review was marked by attempts to restrict civil society space, including a note verbale requesting UN security in Geneva not to allow entrance for a list of activists for being ‘anti-China.’ Access for independent NGOs was further limited by the overwhelming presence of Chinese GONGOs – organisations aligned with or a branch of the government. 

‘It is very telling that China’s Ambassador concluded today’s review by calling out recommendations to implement findings from UN bodies as “founded on rumours and lies,”’ Viana said. ‘It is also telling that China still deploys great efforts to restrict NGOs access to the UN, and to bully other countries into parroting its speaking points. This is not the behaviour you expect from a country that wants to be seen as a responsible global leader.’

On the other hand, Beijing’s envoys received support from friendly States. Their representatives took turns to read out Chinese talking points and unclear concepts such as ‘whole-process democracy’, using their speaking time to congratulate China, dispense encouragement to ‘continue’ its human rights policies, or ask friendly, uncontroversial questions on minor issues. NGO attendees expressed great disappointment at the position of countries such as Türkiye, Bulgaria, Fiji, Panama, and Malawi.

‘It was shameful to see Muslim countries applaud China for their ongoing development efforts without a mention of religious and cultural persecution of Uyghurs. The UPR was an opportunity for us to identify those with moral dignity and those who decide to look the other way in the face of genocide. We know who those are,’ said Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress

Despite Beijing’s pressure, a range of developing countries still conveyed unambiguous concerns, including Mexico, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Peru and the Marshall Islands; Costa Rica further recommended Beijing to remove excessive restrictions on NGOs.

‘We are really pleased that eleven countries raised questions to China regarding LGBTQ activists. Over the past few years, the Chinese government has systematically oppressed and harassed its own LGBTQ civil society organisations and human rights defenders. The international community needs to maintain sustained attention to this issue,’ reacted KK an LGBTQ activist.

Other governments closer to Beijing, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Gambia, Iraq, Qatar and Kazakhstan, disguised concerns in friendlier recommendations to ‘preserve the cultural identities’, ‘promote cultural diversity’ or ‘protect cultural heritage’. Ecuador and at least four other governments further recommended China to better regulate its business activities overseas to prevent rights abuses, as well as to consider a ‘human rights-based approach’ to its development policies – at odds with Beijing’s attempt to strong-arm a ‘people-centred’ approach at the UN.

In total, over 160 countries submitted requests to make speeches during China’s review.

‘We appreciate countries highlighting the plight of brave human rights defenders inside China, who have been silenced, persecuted for trying to participate in the UPR,’ said Renee Xia, Director of the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. ‘In the 2013 UPR, Cao Shunli paid the ultimate price with her life for her persistence to have independent voices heard in the room.’

‘It’s very positive that more countries follow the recommendations of UN human rights experts to raise Hong Kong’s rights deterioration after the National Security Law was imposed by China,’ Eric Lai, Hong Kong research fellow at Georgetown Center for Asian Law This reflects their respect for international human rights obligations. ‘The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities must follow these expert-based recommendations if they wish to earn greater respect from the international community.’

Following this session, the Chinese government must review the recommendations it has received, which it can accept – and commit to implementing – or refuse, and report back to the Human Rights Council at its 56th session (June 2024). In 2018, China ostensibly accepted an important percentage of recommendations, but unequivocally rejected measures relating to grave violations, including rights of Uyghurs and Tibetans or its refusal to cooperate with UN human rights envoys and bodies. 

Per the UPR rules, China is expected to implement the recommendations it chooses to accept, and has until its next UPR session, in 2029, to do so. UN practice also encourage States under review to report on the status of implementation by publishing a ‘mid-term report’, halfway between its previous and next UPR session –  something China has never done for past reviews.

This was China’s fourth appearance before this mechanism. The last one was in November 2018. At the time, countries called out the existence of mass detention camps for Uyghurs a few months after they were revealed by a UN committee.

Since that time, mounting human rights abuses have been largely documented by a range of UN human rights bodies and mandate holders. ISHR has compiled this in a public repository that can be consulted here. ISHR has also prepared a summary of all key points of China’s past review and details of its recent record in this short explainer, which includes suggested tips for media coverage.

A live coverage of UPR recommendations was provided by ISHR here. All recommendations can be downloaded here.

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