Twenty-three nations, including Britain, the United States, Germany, France and Japan, slammed China at the United Nations recently, citing its persecution of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang province.
“We call on the Chinese government to uphold its national laws and international obligations and commitments to respect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China,” the group said in a joint statement submitted to a General Assembly meeting on the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, or Cerd.
A much larger group, led by Belarus and including Russia, Egypt, Pakistan and 50 other countries, also submitted a joint declaration — this one quite different.
“We commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights by adhering to the people-centered development philosophy and protecting and promoting human rights through development,” the group said, while also citing the “challenge of terrorism and extremism” in Xinjiang.
Yet a majority of other countries stayed silent, underscoring the influence of China and an increasing reluctance to criticize it — even after a Cerd member’s description last year of “something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone” in Xinjiang, where about one million people have been rounded up.
While the Western countries’ declaration (with Japan) has clearly angered China, it is enjoying growing political clout at the UN and far beyond. At the UN, this means its “no strings attached” development aid and investments in Africa and elsewhere may come with strings attached, after all. In fact, most of the pro-China declaration signers were African, and no African nation backed the pro-Western statement. (See the video below with the US, German and British diplomats reading their remarks.)
“Other countries where China has lots of financial interests in infrastructures [and] investments explain quite a lot of the voting pattern,” a European diplomat whose country endorsed the pro-human-rights declaration told PassBlue.
One example is Greece, where China eased the economic crisis in Greece by buying the country’s largest port. Greece infamously blocked a European Union statement on human rights in China in 2017, and this time around it declined to take sides.
The Greek ambassador to the UN, Maria Theofili, said at a public event in early November, “China is the only country that has showed confidence during the economic crisis.” She added that she didn’t feel there was a need for Greece to say more, given a 2018 European Union statement on the matter.
This isn’t the first confrontation at the UN this year regarding allegations of human-rights abuses in Xinjiang. In July, 22 countries signed the first-ever joint letter to Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, in Geneva, protesting the detentions; China promptly persuaded 50 other countries to submit a competing letter.
As for the more recent declaration, “it took guts for these countries to put their names down,” Louis Charbonneau, the United Nations director at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, told PassBlue, referring to those nations grouping against China. “You can bet they will be — and were before — under a lot of pressure from China to not align themselves.” (See the list below which countries signed the dueling declarations.)
During the run-up to the recent General Assembly Third Committee meeting on human rights, China lobbied to persuade other countries to sign the Belarus-backed declaration.
“China is clearly very, very worried about the attention and the focus the Xinjiang issue is getting,” Charbonneau said.
One strategy is to denounce Western countries’ “naming and shaming” practices, arguing that they go against the principle of sovereignty that China always champions in the UN and help politicize human rights.
“They see it as an internal issue that should stay an internal issue,” Mansour Al-Otaibi, Kuwait’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue. “It’s very important for them and I can understand that.”
The pressure was especially intense for African countries where China’s infrastructure investments — the Belt and Road Initiative — are booming and debts to Beijing are piling up. All but about 10 of Africa’s 54 countries benefit from the initiative, and most African countries receive direct investment from China. While most of the countries that signed the pro-China declaration are African, other African nations remained quiet, possibly reluctant to criticize such a potentially rich business partner.
The power amassed in Africa by China is also being challenged more assertively by another big power, Russia.
A representative from one African country that didn’t sign either declaration said he was lobbied by both sides — most aggressively by China — before deciding that a joint statement was not the right approach to the situation and that the way the Xinjiang issue was handled in the Third Committee session was overly politicized.
Many countries that signed the pro-China declaration have problems with abiding by human rights themselves. But Charbonneau of Human Rights Watch said he was still surprised and disappointed by some of the names on the list.
A representative from one country that signed in favor of China, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “They gave us their perspective and the effort they have been doing in order to stabilize the situation, and they think [the human-rights issue] has been politicized against them. When you meet with them, they present their perspective and ask you to support their view if possible.”
A representative from another African country that didn’t take a position said, “I just abided by what our capital told me, I didn’t have the authorization to intervene and I didn’t ask the reason why.”
The significance of Chinese investments in Africa has not gone unnoticed by the UN Secretariat. In a September press release, a spokesperson for Secretary-General António Guterres said, “The growing partnership between China and African countries comes as African countries steadily reinforce their capacities across the peace continuum, from prevention to peacemaking to peacekeeping, underpinned by inclusive sustainable development.”
This year, the secretary-general appointed the first Chinese special envoy to the Great Lakes region in Africa, Huang Xia, surprising many who are used to seeing Westerners head such missions. The region’s largest country is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the UN has a peacekeeping mission.
China is currently the second-largest financial contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget, after the US, and has the most peacekeepers in UN missions among its fellow permanent-five members: Britain, France, Russia and the US. (China ranks seventh in donations to the UN general budget.)
The UN chief on counterterrorism, a Russian diplomat named Vladimir Voronkov, visited China in July but did not raise questions about human rights, irking Western diplomats who would like to see Bachelet, the high commissioner for human rights, make the same trip but with a different message.
Despite the relatively small number of countries signing on to the declaration by Japan and Western countries, Charbonneau thinks it shows progress, as it “brings this issue to New York, not only Geneva.” (The Human Rights Council is based there.)
But any optimism has to be tempered by a recognition of China’s growing economic and political presence around the world. “China is starting to ask some favors back from their investments,” a representative from a country that signed the Western countries’ declaration told PassBlue. “And it’s only the beginning.”
How They Lined Up
According to the UN, the human-rights joint statement was backed by: Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The pro-China joint statement was signed by: Belarus, also on behalf of Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, China, Comoros, The Congo, Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mauritania, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, the Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, the State of Palestine, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Serbia, Sierra Leone, the Solomon Islands, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, The Sudan, Suriname, the Syrian Arab Republic, Togo, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, the United Republic of Tanzania, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Zambia and Zimbabwe
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.