UN is failing the Uighurs in China
Of the 11 million Uighur Muslims living in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, up to two million of them, including ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs have been detained inside camps, while those remaining on the outside facing a crackdown for a number of years. Human rights organizations and many foreign governments have described the many human rights abuses inflicted on the Uighur people as genocide.
A recent report by a US think tank -- New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy -- claimed the Chinese government has violated the 1948 United Nations Convention for the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide, with its campaign of internment, forced sterilisation, family separation, the killing of Uighur leaders, as well as the cultural destruction of the group's religious identity.
Absent from the international chorus of condemnation and calls for investigations into China's abuses toward the Uighurs is the UN, led by Secretary-General António Guterres, who is a year from being confirmed for a second term. Critics have charged that Mr Guterres has stayed largely silent amid international calls for action. In September 2019, a coalition of human rights groups called on Mr Guterres to publicly condemn China's abusive policies in Xinjiang, which prompted a harsh rebuke a few days later. Mr Guterres has been repeatedly criticised for his behind-the-scenes, quiet diplomacy with the Chinese. Negotiations, the secretary-general claims, to let the UN have unfettered access to the region are ongoing.
However, there are other tools at the disposal of the UN that haven't been employed. Mr Guterres could appoint a special envoy. The UN Human Rights Council could appoint a special rapporteur to handle the Uighur issue.
Last year, Independent UN experts, including David Kaye, the now-former special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression, voiced alarm about the repression of fundamental freedoms in broader China, including Xinjiang and Hong Kong. They called for the establishment of an "impartial and independent" mechanism, including the appointment of a special envoy, as well as a panel of experts appointed by the Human Rights Council. None of these options have since been considered.
A part of the problem has been the failure of Mr Guterres to strongly push for fundamental reforms within the UN system -- a thorny issue considering his candidacy for a second term and China's recent statement of support. The current system, critics charge, allows the world's worst human rights abusers to play active roles on the Human Rights Council. China was recently elected to the main 15-member body of the council, where it will serve a three-year term alongside other human rights-abusing states, such as Pakistan, Cuba and Russia. Worse, in April 2020, China was appointed to the Human Rights Council's Consultative Group, where it now has a key role in selecting human rights investigators, Special rapporteurs -- including those related to freedom of speech, health, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention.
China's ascent to the top of the UN hierarchy speaks to its tremendous international influence. Chinese President Xi Jinping has long encouraged officials to take up leadership positions within the UN and other international organisations and recent appointments are evidence that this strategy is paying huge dividends. Now when China is criticised publicly by Western or other UN member states, it can unleash that influence to defend itself from allegations of genocide in Xinjiang or its authoritarian curbs in Hong Kong. Last year, China was able to pull together a coalition of more than 50 countries to defend itself against criticism of its enactment of a national security law for Hong Kong. More broadly, China has begun to flex its financial and military muscle within the UN, contributing more than 10% of the UN peacekeeping budget and training PLA troops in preparation for peacekeeping missions.
In other conflicts within the Asia-Pacific such as Myanmar, the UN and other international organizations have been quick to call for special mechanisms to help resolve regional crises. Thomas Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar has been very vocal in defence of civilians targeted by the Tatmadaw, and Indonesia recently proposed an Asean special envoy. Mr Guterres has been quick to condemn the killing of innocent protesters in Myanmar, but public statements of condemnation in Xinjiang are few and far between. The UN and Mr Guterres are failing the Uyghur Muslims and more through inaction. It is time for Mr Guterres to end his pattern of reliance on behind-the-scenes diplomacy and demand an investigation into the mass detainment and abuse of millions of Uighur Muslims in China's northwest region.
Mark S Cogan is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.