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Police officers stand at the outer entrance of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 2021. © 2021 Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

This week the credibility of the United Nations Human Rights Council is on the line over an extraordinarily modest request: to hold a debate on a recent report from the UN high commissioner for human rights on abuses in the Xinjiang region of China. Member states would not be obliged to take a position on the issues at hand, the government in question, or even seek a particular outcome. But the debate is an opportunity to stand together to ensure the council fulfills its bare minimum mandate.

On August 31, the high commissioner published a report outlining a systematic campaign by the Chinese government to target Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of religion and expression and to enjoy their own culture. The report relies extensively upon the Chinese government’s own policy documents to demonstrate that the authorities’ sweeping crackdown in Xinjiang is discriminatory in both purpose and effect. It concludes that the extent of these violations may constitute international crimes, “in particular crimes against humanity,” requiring “urgent attention by the United Nations intergovernmental bodies and human rights system.”

Despite Chinese authorities’ expressed commitment to dialogue, they have made every effort to suppress the high commissioner’s report and prevent discussion of its contents.

If this approach prevails, it would undermine the institutional integrity of the Human Rights Council by placing the human rights situation in one country uniquely beyond international scrutiny. The council is explicitly mandated to discuss human rights violations committed by any state. To allow a single government to escape scrutiny for some of the worst violations under international law will not only mean failing victims and survivors, but also enabling abusers and creating a dangerous double standard.

The Human Rights Council needs to be able to discuss all human rights issues. As council member states decide whether to vote for this initiative, they should consider the integrity of the council and the implications on rights worldwide if one powerful country is effectively guaranteed impunity.

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