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Little time to review China’s rights record at UN

Because 160 countries signed up, each only had 45 seconds to speak about China’s human rights record.

By Alex Willemyns for RFA

January 23, 2024

A five-yearly review of China’s human rights record at U.N. offices in Geneva descended into a speed-reading contest on Tuesday after an unusually high number of countries registered in a limited schedule to offer their views on a country that has been accused of genocide.

With 160 countries signing up to offer their criticism or praise of China’s rights record, each was allotted just 45 seconds in the approximately three-hour session. Beijing, meanwhile, was afforded a full hour to defend its record since its last “universal periodic review,” or UPR in U.N. speak, in 2018.

Prior to the review, diplomats speaking to Reuters said China’s delegation in Geneva had been lobbying non-Western countries to praise its human rights efforts during the session.

In his opening remarks, Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the U.N. offices in Geneva, said that Beijing “upholds respect for and protection of human rights as a task of importance in state governance” and had “lifted 100 million people out of poverty” over the past decade.

“We embarked on a path of human rights development in keeping with the trend of the times, and appropriate to China's national conditions and scored historic achievements in this process,” Chen said. 

“A happier life for people is the ultimate human right,” he said. “China sees people's aspiration for a better life as the focus of these efforts.”

It was the first review of China’s record since the then-top U.N. rights official, Michelle Bachelet, in 2022 issued a damning report that accused China of possible “crimes against humanity” for its forced-assimilation policies against the Uyghur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region.

But China’s diplomats in Geneva ignored those claims Tuesday.

Elevator pitches

With so many countries sign-up to speak, there was little time for each to review China’s human rights  record in much depth, and many of the diplomats who did speak used their time to praise Beijing’s record.

Ethiopia, for instance, said it “applauds China for improving the criminal litigation system rigorously” in order “to make the judicial procedures of human rights in a more orderly way,” and recommended that Beijing strive to “carry out publicity and education on the rule of law.”

Gabon welcomed China’s work “to promote child protection through improvements to the law” and said that its recommendation was for Beijing “to continue to promote the rights of women and children.”

In contrast, many Western countries were critical in their 45-second reviews, but were still measured given the format of the review process, which requires countries to offer constructive criticism.

The United Kingdom called on China to “cease the persecution and arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and Tibetans, and allow genuine freedom of religion or belief and cultural expression without fear of surveillance, torture, forced labour, or sexual violence.”

Canada’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Leslie Norton, said China should allow the United Nations “unfettered access” to the country to review the rights situation there, and recommended that Beijing end its forced assimilation programs targeted at Tibetans and Uyghurs.

“End all coercive measures imposed on Uyghurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities including forced labor, coercive labor transfer, forced sterilizations and mandatory residential schools,” Norton said.

Finland’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Heidi Schroderus-Fox, called on China to protect the rights of the Uyghurs and “to invite the [U.N.] Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to visit China, including Xinjiang,” which Beijing has so far not allowed.

Israel, too, called for China to improve the human rights situation in Xinjiang, while Turkey recommended China “improve overall conditions of all components of its population, including the Uyghur Turks, with full respect of their distinct identity, religion, and language.”

Long list

The most scathing review was offered by the United States, which in 2021 accused Beijing of “genocide” over its treatment of Uyghurs.

Speaking in a rapid-fire succession of sentences reminiscent of a patter song, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Michele Taylor, fit whole paragraphs listing human rights abuses committed by China’s government into her 45-second slot.

“We recommend that China release all arbitrarily detained individuals, … cease harassment, surveillance and threats against individuals abroad and in China, including Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, cease discrimination against individuals, culture, language, religion or belief and forcible assimilation policies, including boarding schools in Tibet and Xinjiang, and torture, unjust residential, detention and persecution throughout China, and forced labor, marriage, birth control, sterilization, abortion and family separation in Xinjiang,” Taylor said.

Without taking a breathe, Taylor then called on China to “repeal vague national security counterespionage, counterterrorism and sedition laws, including the National Security Law in Hong Kong, and repressive measures against women, LGBTQI+ persons, laborers and migrant workers, including in Hong Kong and Macau, permit the U.N. unhindered and meaningful access particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet.”

“We condemn the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and transnational repression to silence individuals abroad,” she concluded, taking her first breathe before adding: “Thank you.”

Human rights activists who gathered in Geneva blasted China for undermining a key global rights process, but said that Beijing’s efforts did show how much it cared about the outcome.

“It seems as though some of those questions could have been drafted by the Chinese government,” Kai Muller, the head of U.N. advocacy for the International Campaign for Tibet, told Radio Free Asia.

“China’s investment into this U.N. process is quite stunning and tremendous and, at the same time, indeed worrisome.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.



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