Opinion The U.S. and China are headed for a showdown at the U.N.
The United States and some of its European partners have decided to force a vote at the United Nations next week on whether to debate China’s atrocities against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities — acts the United Nations’ own human rights commissioner has said may constitute “crimes against humanity.” But Beijing is working overtime to prevent the debate from ever taking place. This is a crucial test for both the United Nations’ and the Biden administration’s commitments on human rights.
On Monday, the United States filed a resolution, formally known as a “draft decision,” that — if passed — would add China to the agenda of the ongoing session at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. President Biden decided that the United States would rejoin the council when his administration took office. The Trump administration had withdrawn from the council because of its inclusion of several human rights abusers and its overall lack of substantive action. China’s human rights abuses have never been debated there before.
The debate would address the report on China’s abuses released by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Aug. 31, her last day in that post. The Chinese government had tried to thwart the release of the report and afterward called it “wholly illegal and invalid.” Now, Beijing is working to strong-arm countries that sit on the council, threatening them with economic and other punishments if they don’t vote to bury the Bachelet report, several officials and diplomats told me.
The 47-member body will vote before the current session ends Oct. 7. A simple majority is needed for the measure to pass. Although the Biden administration has declared that China’s abuses in Xinjiang constitute an ongoing genocide, the United States and its partners wrote the resolution as a simple call for debate over the Bachelet report, hoping to make it easier for squeamish governments to vote yes.
“We are taking this step deliberately, given an assessment that it is achievable," a senior administration official told me. "The goal is to put the issue on the agenda and pave the way for further action down the line.”
The Biden administration will reach out to any and all council members that it believes can be recruited to the cause over the next few days, both from the U.S. mission in Geneva and including senior officials in Washington, the official said. There’s no preliminary vote count, but the administration believes it’s going to be close.
“We are going to engage on a full-court press,” the official said.
Uyghur activists told me that this resolution represents their only hope that the United Nations might act on the plight of their family members in Xinjiang. The Uyghur American Association held a hunger strike in front of the White House last week to plead for the U.S. and other governments to introduce and pass this resolution.
“Free and civilized nations have come together to support Ukraine in order to defend the international world order. We believe it is the responsibility of those free and civilized nations to support Uyghurs in international forums to defend the same international order,” association President Elfidar Iltebir told me.
Many Uyghur activists are frustrated by what they see as the Biden administration’s lack of attention on this issue. In Biden’s defense, he did mention Xinjiang (briefly) in his speech to the General Assembly; a senior U.S. official spoke at an Atlantic Council event on the U.N. meeting’s sidelines last week. It’s also true that the administration pushed hard for the Bachelet report to be released in the first place.
But the Biden team erred by not introducing this resolution two weeks ago, when the Human Rights Council session opened, said former deputy U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Kelley Currie. This gave Beijing a head start on the diplomacy, she said, and wasted the opportunity for senior U.S. officials to press the issue last week, when dozens of world leaders convened in New York for the General Assembly’s main events.
“Better late than never, and we all want this resolution to succeed. But this inexplicable delay was a totally avoidable misstep,” Currie told me. “Meanwhile, China has been aggressively lobbying against the resolution since August 31.”
To be successful, she said, the Biden team will need to deploy diplomatic resources to match or exceed China’s level of effort, with the understanding that many of the tools China uses — bribery, coercion and vote trading — are off the table for the United States.
This could be the last chance for the U.N. Human Rights Council to demonstrate its reason for being. If China’s genocide is not even worthy of a debate there, the council’s credibility will be unsalvageable, all those who criticized Biden’s decision to rejoin the body will be vindicated, and the Uyghurs’ cries for help will be muffled.