GENEVA - The UN Human Rights Council on Thursday voted against debating alleged widespread abuses in China's Xinjiang region after intense lobbying by Beijing, in a heavy setback for Western nations.
The United States and allies last month brought a draft decision targeting China to the UN's top rights body, seeking as a bare minimum a discussion on Xinjiang.
The move came after former UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet released her long-delayed Xinjiang report, citing possible crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region.
Western countries thought that by going no further than simply seeking to talk about the findings, enough other nations would not block putting it on the agenda.
But in a moment of knife-edge drama, countries on the 47-member council in Geneva voted 19-17 against holding a debate on human rights in Xinjiang, with 11 nations abstaining.
"This is a victory for developing countries and a victory for truth and justice," tweeted Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
Amnesty International branded the vote farcical, while Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it betrayed abuse victims.
"The United States condemns today's vote preventing a discussion about Xinjiang," US ambassador to the council Michele Taylor tweeted.
Inaction "shamefully suggests some countries are free from scrutiny and allowed to violate human rights with impunity".
- 'Western plot failed' -
The nations voting against a debate were Bolivia, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Gabon, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Namibia, Nepal, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.
Argentina, Armenia, Benin, Brazil, The Gambia, India, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico and Ukraine abstained.
Washington and some Western countries have used Xinjiang "to spread rumours and cause trouble, engaging in political manipulation under the guise of human rights, attempting to smear China's image," a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement.
"The plot by the US and some Western countries has once again failed.
"Xinjiang-related issues are fundamentally not human rights issues, but are counter-terrorism, deradicalisation and anti-separatism issues."
The draft decision was put forward by the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Turkey, among others.
One Western diplomat stressed that regardless of the outcome, "the number one objective has been fulfilled" in putting Xinjiang in the spotlight.
- 'Dreadful message' -
Bachelet's report, published minutes before her term ended on August 31, highlighted "credible" allegations of widespread torture, arbitrary detention and violations of religious and reproductive rights.
It brought UN endorsement to long-running allegations that Beijing detained more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims and forcibly sterilised women.
Beijing vehemently rejected the charges, insisting it was running vocational training centres in the region to counter extremism.
Amnesty secretary general Agnes Callamard said Thursday's vote put the council in "the farcical position of ignoring the findings of the UN's own human rights office".
"For council member states to vote against even discussing a situation where the UN itself says crimes against humanity may have occurred makes a mockery of everything the Human Rights Council is supposed to stand for."
HRW's China director Sophie Richardson called it an "abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of Uyghur victims".
The International Service for Human Rights' China advocate Raphael Viana David said: "Council members sent today a dreadful message: China remains so far untouchable."
- Muslim countries' position 'shameful' -
ISHR executive director Phil Lynch said it was "shameful" that "Muslim countries... have overwhelmingly failed to even support a UN discussion on rights abuses against Uyghurs."
Indonesian ambassador Febrian Ruddyard said: "As the world's largest Muslim country and a vibrant democracy, we cannot close our eyes to the plight of our Muslim brothers and sisters."
But, as China did not consent, a discussion "will not yield meaningful progress", hence Indonesia voted 'no'.
The sentiment was echoed by Qatari ambassador Hend Al-Muftah.
China launched an all-out offensive to dismiss Bachelet's report.
African countries, where China is the leading creditor after making massive infrastructure investments, faced particularly heavy lobbying, observers said.
In the end, only Somalia voted 'yes' out of 13 countries.
Britain's ambassador Simon Manley said the close result nonetheless showed Beijing that "a significant number of countries will not be silenced when it comes to egregious human rights violations", whoever the perpetrator.