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China rights record in spotlight at UN

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Geneva, Switzerland—A civil liberties crackdown, repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong’s draconian national security law are among concerns expected to be raised during a United Nations (UN) review of China’s rights record on Tuesday, Jan. 23.

Beijing is likely to face intense scrutiny, especially from Western countries, during its regular Universal Periodic Review (UPR)—a rights record examination that all 193 UN member states must undergo every four to five years.

“It is very important to hold China to account,” a Western diplomat said.

The array of issues likely to be raised is vast, from alleged efforts to erase cultural identity in Tibet to the sweeping national security law imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 to quash dissent after pro-democracy protests.

Much focus is expected to remain on the situation in the northwestern Xinjiang region, where China is accused of incarcerating over a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

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Beijing vehemently rejects the charges, which were already put forward during its last UPR in 2018.

Since then, more UN documentation has been provided, including a report released by UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet just minutes before her term ended in 2022.

‘Crimes against humanity’

That report, flatly rejected by China, highlighted “credible” allegations of widespread torture and arbitrary detention, citing possible “crimes against humanity.”

But amid intense Chinese pressure, UN Human Rights Council members narrowly voted in October 2022 against even debating the report’s contents.

“We haven’t seen a really substantive discussion about the report,” said Sarah Brooks, Amnesty International’s deputy director for China.

She and other rights advocates voiced hope the UPR could provide a chance for countries to back the findings and demand action from Beijing.

Sophie Richardson, the former China director at Human Rights Watch, said Beijing should face pointed questions on the “substantiated concerns about crimes against humanity.”

Questions are also expected to be raised on Beijing’s crackdown on civil society, which is sometimes felt as far away as Geneva.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the death of activist Cao Shunli, who was detained as she attempted to travel to Geneva ahead of China’s 2013 UPR.

After being held for several months without charge, she fell gravely ill and died in March 2014.

Richardson urged the diplomats coming to the UPR to delve into such concerns.

Governments, she told AFP, are “given an opportunity to put questions and recommendations to (Beijing) in a way the vast majority of people across China never get to do.”

“They must take the process seriously.”

‘Politicization’

A large Chinese delegation, headed by Beijing’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Chen Xu, will take part in the event and present its rights situation in a far more positive light.

“We uphold respect for and protection of human rights as a task of importance in state governance,” Yuyun Liu, spokesperson at the Chinese mission in Geneva, told AFP in an email.

Suggesting how Beijing will likely counter criticism, the spokesperson stressed that China “firmly opposes the politicization of human rights and double standards.”

In a bid to control the narrative, Beijing has reportedly requested the UN ensure “anti-China separatists” are not granted access to the session, and that any “anti-China” slogans are kept out.

Observers also warn that China has been pressuring countries for positive feedback and working to ensure more critical nations have little time to speak.

Advanced questions submitted by some countries hint at pandering.

Belarus for instance states that “China upholds that all ethnic groups are equal,” and asks Beijing to “share the efforts and practices by the Chinese government in protecting the rights of ethnic minorities.”

China’s critics also accuse Beijing of pushing supporters to fill the allotted speaking time with praise, leaving little time for others to raise serious concerns.

In total, 163 states have registered to speak during the half-day session, leaving each country with just 45 seconds on the clock.

“”The dilemma is how you use your 45 seconds,” the Western diplomat said.

“How do we encapsulate our concerns regarding China in 45 seconds?”

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