Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech in the Palais des Nations at the United Nations in Geneva, January 18, 2017.

© 2017 Denis Balibouse/Reuters
(Geneva) – China used pressure and warnings to stifle criticism of its poor human rights record throughout the United Nations Human Rights Council session that concluded on March 22, 2019, in Geneva, Human Rights Watch said today. China provided no credible response to concerns raised about the government’s rights violations, notably the mass arbitrary detention of an estimated one million Turkic Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region.

“For years China has worked behind the scenes to weaken UN human rights mechanisms,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “But the growing global outcry over its mistreatment of Xinjiang’s Muslims has sent China into panic mode, using public as well as private pressure to block concerted international action.”

A letter sent by China to ambassadors in Geneva, which Human Rights Watch obtained, warns delegations that “in the interest of our bilateral relations and continued multilateral cooperation,” they should not “co-sponsor, participate in or be present at” a panel event on March 13 on human rights violations in Xinjiang, hosted by the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In addition, some delegates from the global South told Human Rights Watch that Chinese diplomats had personally approached them and warned them not to attend the event.

China’s rights record was under formal scrutiny at this session as the Human Rights Council considered the report of China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a regular review of the rights record of each UN member state. Delegates attending the session identified a number of concerns about China’s efforts to mute criticism and to present a distorted account of its rights record, including:

  • Pressuring UN officials to remove the UN country team and certain nongovernmental organization submissions from UPR materials;
  • Providing blatantly false or misleading responses on critical issues, such as on violations of religious freedom; mass detention centers, and lack of due process safeguards in Xinjiang;
  • Urging delegations to sign up for the UPR to praise China’s rights record;
  • Approaching delegations that criticized China’s rights record to warn of negative consequences to their bilateral relationship;
  • Prevailing upon member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to commend China for its treatment of its Muslim population;
  • Flooding speaker lists with government-organized nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs) to uncritically endorse China’s rights record, while not allowing any opportunity for independent China groups to participate in any government consultation or make submissions without fear of reprisals;
  • Seeking to block accreditation of a Uyghur activist, Dolkun Isa, and publicly denouncing him without basis as a “terrorist” during an event held by a nongovernmental group, and denouncing a Uyghur panelist at the state-led side event, ominously citing details of the whereabouts and status of his family members;
  • Exhibiting a massive week-long photo display outside UN meeting rooms depicting Uyghurs as happy and grateful to the Chinese authorities; and
  • Seeking to silence a nongovernmental group from speaking on Xinjiang at the council by raising points of order.

Despite China’s efforts to prevent criticism, numerous government delegations, the UN high commissioner for human rights, UN rights experts, treaty bodies, and many nongovernmental organizations have all drawn attention to China’s sweeping violations in Xinjiang and called for unfettered access for international monitors to conduct an independent assessment.

“It speaks volumes that China felt it necessary to twist arms and mount propaganda displays to try to suppress scrutiny of its rights record,” Fisher said. “Now it’s up to governments to take action at the June Council session and show that China is being held to international rights standards.”