UN vote to ignore human rights abuses in China leaves west in dead end

In a display of raw Chinese political power, the UN has voted to turn its back on a report written by its own human rights commissioner that accused Beijing of serious human rights abuses and possible crimes against humanity in Xinjiang province.

The 47-strong UN human rights council meeting in Geneva voted on Thursday by 19 to 17 to reject an American-led call for a debate on the report at the next human rights council in spring. Eleven countries abstained. A simple majority was required.

The clear and damning report, much of it based on Chinese official information, was written by the outgoing human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, and published in August on her last day in office.

The US demand had been pitched at the mildest level possibleto attract as many votes as possible, but the US could not secure enough swing states on the council even to keep the issue on the UN agenda by staging a formal debate on the issue.

the outgoing human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet.
The UN report, much of it based on Chinese official information, was written by the outgoing human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet. Photograph: Pierre Albouy/Reuters

The outcome is a severe blow to supporters of universal individual human rights values and a confirmation that many states refuse to take sides in the ideological power struggle between China and the west.

The defeat became inevitable when a series of Muslim states, including Pakistan, Qatar and Indonesia, refused to back an inquiry into the persecution of Uyghur Muslims. Mexico was one of many countries to abstain after intense lobbying by China.

Indonesia told the meeting in Geneva that as the largest Muslim country it could not abandon its Uyghur Muslim brothers and favoured dialogue, but then rejected the call for the debate.

Western diplomats had admitted before the votes that the outcome was on a knife-edge and pointed to a group of swing states as critical to the outcome, including Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Brazil and Senegal.

Related: West weighs calling for China Uyghur abuses inquiry at UN

Although diplomats knew it was a risk to try to put a superpower in the dock at the UN, it was argued China could not be given impunity by letting the hard-hitting report be put on the shelf.

China argued the report infringed national sovereignty and mistook a legitimate attempt to quell and re-educate a group of Muslim terrorists.

Olaf Wientzek at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Geneva said: “This is a disappointing result damaging the credibility of the UN, but not unexpected, and it shows China’s diplomatic clout.

“It is astonishing that such a report with clear findings on the disastrous situation in Xinjiang is not sufficient to find enough countries to stage a debate. Those who promoted the resolution did not want a monitoring mechanism, but only a debate, and that was too much for many members.”

The UK ambassador in Geneva, Simon Manley, insisted that “China’s attempts to stifle debate and hide the truth will not succeed.

“Today’s vote sent a clear message to China: that a significant number of countries will not be silenced when it comes to egregious human rights violations – no matter where and by whom they are committed.

“We will continue to work with our partners to hold the Chinese authorities to account and to shine a spotlight on China’s human rights violations.”

But the west, after battling for so long to persuade China to allow Bachelet to conduct an inquiry inside China, is now at an effective dead end. Some western diplomats said they would be pushing to persuade the new human rights commissioner, Volker Türk of Austria, to put the issue at the top of his agenda.

Members of the human rights council are elected every two years on a regional bloc basis. It meets in Geneva twice a year. The US left the council under Donald Trump.

On her departure, Bachelet condemned Beijing for “serious human rights violations” and possible “crimes against humanity” in a western region where China’s leadership is accused of mass roundups and other mistreatment of Uyghurs and other minorities, despite Beijing’s strong-arm tactics to block the assessment.

Bachelet’s report suggests the discriminatory detention of Muslim groups in Xinjiang province might constitute crimes against humanity and calls on China to “take prompt steps” to release all of those detainees in so-called training centres, prisons, or detention facilities.

It cites a “discriminatory pattern” and “patterns of torture” allegations in Xinjiang as “credible” and says the situation requires “urgent” international attention.

Chinese officials’ treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang province, where more than 1 million Uyghurs have been forced into a network of detention camps, has been labeled genocide by the US and the UK parliament, but not by the UK government. The outcome raises questions about relations between China and the west.

British diplomats accept it is now likely the German leader, Olaf Scholz, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, will travel to Beijing shortly to reset relations with President Xi Xi Jinping after the Chinese Congress in the middle of the month.

Discussions are still under way as to whether the prime minister, Liz Truss, will stage a bilateral with Xi at the G20 in Bali, but there is no plan for a senior minister to visit China.

Truss has always taken a harder line on China than her predecessor, Boris Johnson, as part of her determination to confront authoritarian states and reject western complacency. A second version of the integrated review, due next year, is likely to harden the British stance on China.

Before being elected prime minister, Truss had called for western troops and armaments to be pre-positioned in Taiwan.

The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, met his Chinese opposite number at the UN and in a recent speech insisted the UK would not stop in its criticisms of human rights abuses.