UN blocks US-proposed debate on Xinjiang, showing China’s clout

The United Nations voted to strike down a debate on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang just weeks after publishing a damning report on the topic, in a display of Beijing’s ability to block US influence on the world stage through alliances in the Global South.

The US-proposed draft resolution at the UN’s Human Rights Council meeting was narrowly rejected Thursday in Geneva, with 19 countries — including China — voting against it. Seventeen were in favor, while 11 abstained. Among those backing China — a powerful permanent Security Council member — were Muslim-majority nations that have also been benefactors of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, including Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. 

Those abstaining included India, which has long been silent on Xinjiang issues as it navigates its own tense relationship with Beijing, and Ukraine, whose leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has asked President Xi Jinping for help in the wake of Russia’s invasion, without success.

Last month, the outgoing UN High Commissioner of Human Rights published a damning report accusing Beijing of “serious human rights abuses” in Xinjiang. Detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims, along with a broader campaign of violations in China’s far-west region, may constitute “crimes against humanity,” the UN report found.

Beijing has dismissed allegations of rights abuses, including forced labor, as the “lie of the century,” and conducted tours for international diplomats that emphasized the Alaska-sized region’s political stability and economic transformation. 

The vote, which needed a simple majority to pass, was the first time the UN council had put a resolution on China’s abuses in Xinjiang to a poll in its 16-year history. Its outcome deals a blow to the credibility of the UN in holding China and other major powers to account on human rights issues. It also underscores the powerful role small economies can play in China’s quest to diminish the influence of US-led blocs such as the Group of Seven by forming counterweight alliances. 

The US has sought to rally European and other allies to pressure China over Xinjiang, where the Biden administration accused Beijing of committing “genocide.” Several Western democracies earlier this year boycotted the Beijing Olympics over the issue, and the EU has joined the US in proposing legislation to outlaw goods made with forced labor.

China’s economic clout, however, has proved hard to counter globally, as Beijing rallies developing nations in need of financial support to vote alongside it at critical moments, particularly on sensitive issues such as human rights.

In June, the US submitted a joint statement to the UN that criticized China for human rights abuses in Xinjiang garnered 47 signatories, from mostly European allies. Cuba responded with a letter on China’s behalf signed by 69 countries, largely from the Global South.

Michèle Taylor, the US permanent representative to the UN, condemned Thursday’s vote in a Tweet. The result “shamefully suggests some countries are free from scrutiny and allowed to violate human rights with impunity,” she wrote.

China’s assistant minister of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, saw it differently, saying in a tweet: “This is a victory for developing countries and a victory for truth and justice.” – BLOOMBERG