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Chinese Vice-Foreign Affairs Minister Le Yucheng speaks during the Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review of China, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, November 6, 2018. © 2018 Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

Today, the Chinese government, which is responsible for industrial-scale human rights violations, including the arbitrary detention of a million Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and the deaths in custody of peaceful critics, such as 2010 Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, was re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council. But with only 139 votes – a loss of 41 UN member states from its previous tally.

Scratching the surface reveals a significant loss of support for China at the council. In 2009, it received 167 votes; in 2013, that rose to 176; and in 2016, the Chinese Foreign Ministry proclaimed its 180 votes as evidence of “credit given by the international community to China for its achievement in developing human rights.”

Vocal opposition to the Chinese government’s appalling human rights violations is also growing in other UN forums. In October 2019, 23 governments blasted China over its abuses in Xinjiang at the General Assembly’s Third Committee; a year later that figure has risen to 40 and the substance broadened to address concerns about Hong Kong and Tibet.

That criticism may explain why China opted to withdraw rather than press ahead with another initiative that is losing altitude at the Human Rights Council. In 2018, China introduced a resolution claiming to support “win-win” cooperation on human rights – in fact, the proposal’s underlying premise weakens state accountability for serious violations. At the time, 28 states voted for it, 17 abstained, and only 1 voted against. Fast forward to June 2020, and only 23 supported it, while opposition grew to 16 votes against and 8 abstentions. China had also planned another resolution this month, but quietly withdrew it.

And this June, an unprecedented call by 50 UN human rights experts for greater scrutiny of China – echoed by more than 400 civil society groups around the world – reflected growing concern about China’s rights record and its disdain for UN human rights scrutiny.

China’s return to the Human Rights Council is no doubt problematic, but the council will make do. Throughout its short history, the council has persisted with abusive governments among its members. Membership has consequences, not least heightened scrutiny of their own human rights records.

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