Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 24, 2019. © 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

(Geneva) – United Nations member countries should immediately respond to the unprecedented call by UN human rights experts to examine the Chinese government’s human rights record, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN Human Rights Council, whose 44th session is slated to begin on June 30, 2020, should address these issues as a matter of priority.

On June 26, 50 UN special procedures – special rapporteurs and other human rights experts – issued a searing indictment of China’s human rights record. The experts denounced the Chinese government’s “collective repression” of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, the repression of protest and impunity for excessive use of force by police in Hong Kong, censorship and retaliation against journalists, medical workers, and others who sought to speak out following the Covid-19 outbreak, and the targeting of human rights defenders across the country. The experts called for a special session on China, creating a dedicated expert on China, and for UN agencies and governments to press China to meet its human rights obligations.

“In their statement, the UN experts have thrown down the gauntlet not just to China, but to UN member countries that have been unwilling to act on China’s increasingly abusive human rights record,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “The Human Rights Council should not waste the opportunity to begin to hold China to account for its worsening violations.”

The UN experts’ statement highlighted the imminent threat to human rights in Hong Kong. Chinese authorities are set to impose draconian new national security legislation on July 1. The experts warned that the new law would violate China’s international legal obligations, interfere with the rights and autonomy of the Hong Kong people, and place human rights defenders at risk. Echoing the UN experts’ call, Human Rights Watch urged UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to appoint without delay a special envoy to track human rights violations stemming from the law and related abuses.

The experts’ statement noted the harsh repression of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. The Chinese government’s “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism” in Xinjiang has entailed mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination, and the destruction of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims’ cultural and religious heritage. The authorities in Tibetan areas have also stepped up use of a nationwide anti-crime campaign to encourage people to denounce members of their communities on the slightest suspicion of sympathy for the exiled Dalai Lama or opposition to the government.

Under President Xi Jinping, human right defenders across China endure enforced disappearances, politicized prosecutions resulting in lengthy sentences, house arrest, and surveillance. Several incarcerated activists, including the 2010 Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, have either died in detention or shortly after being released, following alleged torture, ill-treatment, or inadequate medical care.

At a time when China’s government has tried to play a more active role in the UN’s human rights system, the experts crucially called out China’s failure to engage in meaningful dialogue, its routine rejection of criticism, and its refusal to accept most requests for country visits by UN experts. China’s active resistance to UN scrutiny calls into question its fitness to be elected to the Human Rights Council later this year.

UN member countries have not just an opportunity but a responsibility to address the UN experts’ recommendations regarding a special session and a dedicated mandate to monitor China’s human rights practices. To make this a reality, the secretary-general should immediately respond favorably to the experts’ appeal to appoint a special envoy.

“Many human rights defenders from China have paid the ultimate price simply for saying what these experts have said,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “States should honor their memory – and their own commitments to human rights – and hold this powerful, abusive government to account.”