Cracks are emerging in the firewall that until now has protected some of the world’s powerful nations from being scrutinized and called to account for gross violations by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, called them the “untouchables.”
“By that I mean governments that have managed to avoid any real critical scrutiny in the form of a resolution by the council. And the foremost untouchables that I have in mind are China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia,” he said.
Addressing the untouchables, Roth said, is not only the biggest challenge facing the council, but is critical to its credibility. He said efforts are underway to draft critical statements on Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He added pressure is growing on Russia because of its alleged poisoning of opposition activist Alexey Navalny.
However, of greatest interest, he says are emerging signs that China may no longer be untouchable.
“It has been seen as politically impossible to address the worsening repression in Xinjiang, the ongoing repression in Tibet, the crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms. It was seen as just, you know, impossible to get past China’s enormous diplomatic and economic efforts to prevent that kind of critical scrutiny. But the times are changing,” he said.
International criticism of China’s alleged internment of at least 1 million Uighur Muslims in so-called vocational education camps hit new heights during the council’s High-Level Segment last week.
In a hard-hitting statement, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the situation in Xinjiang beyond the pale.
“The reported abuses — which include torture, forced labor and forced sterilization of women — are extreme and they are extensive. They are taking place on an industrial scale. It must be our collective duty to ensure that this does not go unanswered. U.N. mechanisms must respond.”
Raab called on the council to pass a resolution allowing urgent and unfettered access to Xinjiang by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent fact-finding expert.
Raab also condemned the systematic violation of rights in Hong Kong and restrictions in Tibet. His denunciations of China’s repressive actions were supported by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
“Our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also leaves no room for the arbitrary detention of ethnic minorities, like the Uighurs in Xinjiang or China’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong,” he said.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi hit back hard on his critics. He told them to stop meddling in his country’s affairs and to stop using human rights as a pretext to interfere in other countries’ internal matters.
“There has never been so-called genocide, forced labor or religious oppression in Xinjiang. Such inflammatory accusations are fabricated out of ignorance and prejudice. They are simply malicious and politically driven hypes and could not be further from the truth,” he said.
Wang Yi said the door to Xinjiang was always open and he invited the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit.
During a regular update to the council Friday on the global human rights situation, U.N. rights chief Michele Bachelet stressed the importance of such a visit.
“In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, information that is in the public domain indicates the need for independent and comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation," she said. "My office continues to assess the alleged patterns of human rights violations, including reports of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and sexual violence in institutions; coercive labor practices, and erosion of social and cultural rights.”
Bachelet said she was confident a mutually agreeable arrangement would be worked out for her to visit China. To date, efforts to arrange a visit to the region, which began before she took office in September 2018, have failed to materialize. Discussions between Bachelet’s office and Chinese authorities are continuing.