On November 6, at the United Nations in Geneva, China will undergo the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record. The review takes place amid mounting reports of mass internment of ethnic Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and as China has stepped up its attack on the core principles of the international human rights system: the universality of human rights and respect for human dignity.
In a campaign targeting Uyghur Muslims, begun in 2016 and that has escalated since 2017—with “anti-extremism” legislation in Xinjiang that classifies sporting “irregular” beards, wearing burqas, and keeping halal not only in food but also in conduct as “primary expressions of extremification”(Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-extremification, Art. 9)—Chinese authorities are believed to have detained at least one million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, out of a Uyghur population of around 11 million, in the name of combatting extremism.
Under intense international concern and scrutiny, the Chinese authorities have shifted their narrative on the internment from flat-out denial of the existence of the detention camps to admitting, in October 2018, that the camps do exist but justifying them as “vocational training centers” where “thought transformation” is conducted.
But few are satisfied with this explanation. In the first group of questions that states have posed to China in advance of the UPR, they have made their concerns clear: 15 of the 57 questions—or more than one in four—are about the internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang or religious repression in Xinjiang and Tibet.
“The human rights crisis in Xinjiang may well be the tipping point—a crisis that is the direct result of the Chinese authorities’ trampling on fundamental human rights and human dignity,” says Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China.
“For a long time, China’s huge market has made too many governments willing to look the other way in exchange for perceived benefits to their national or other interests. But the magnitude of outright repression and internment now demands principled reactions by these governments,” Hom added.
Recent Chinese actions in Xinjiang have been accompanied by other alarming domestic erosions of fundamental rights: promulgation of laws and regulations in 2016-2017 that have steeply escalated control over religious and cultural expression and information flow on the Internet, the consolidation of unaccountable power due to the lifting of the two-term limit for the presidency, and a society-wide loyalty campaign that requires all citizens and entities to submit to the supremacy of the Communist Party of China—over the rule of law and professional standards and ethics. (See a short list of key developments in China since the last China’s 2013 UPR here.)
At the same time on the international stage, China has attempted to attack and replace international human rights norms and standards, undermine independent human rights mechanisms, and export its own model of “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” an approach premised on “national conditions.”
“China’s asserted model is completely at odds with the foundational principle of the international human rights system: that by virtue of being human, every human being is endowed with a set of fundamental and inalienable rights and human dignity,” says Sharon Hom.
By leveraging its economic power and political influence, China has made successful inroads in promoting its model. In March 2018, China led the passage of a resolution at the Human Rights Council that turned the state’s accountability for the protection of fundamental rights into something akin to a management project among states.
As China has changed its position over recent years on implementing its human rights obligations—from “we will do better when our national conditions improve” to an overt rejection of the standards for assessing their compliance—Human Rights in China urges all UN member states during China’s upcoming UPR to hold firm on their commitment to foundational principles, core values, and standards. Failure to effectively address the risks posed to the international human rights system will impact the integrity and soundness of a system that is designed to prevent exactly the kind of abuses now being perpetuated against individuals and groups in China.