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Campaigners aim to lower support for China on UN human rights council

An effort is under way to drive down the Chinese vote at the UN human rights council this week in an attempt to show continuing worldwide disapproval of its human rights record.

The elections on to the world’s premier human rights body take place by secret ballot on Tuesday with China guaranteed a seat in one of the uncontested seats from its region, but human rights campaigners are working to lower the level of Chinese support to show pressure on the country is not dissipating.

Russia is also seeking to return to the 15-strong council after the UN suspended its membership after the invasion of Ukraine. Russia then withdrew from the council.

In 2016 China received 180 votes but this fell to 139 in 2020 against the background of the Xinjiang controversies. Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the region and its Uyghur population has been labelled an attempted genocide by some governments, human rights groups and legal bodies.

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The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (Ipac) has now garnered support from MPs in 15 countries including Italy and Bolivia, two countries that have not greatly engaged on the issue before. The MPs have written to their foreign ministries urging them not to back China.

China has always relied on strong support in Latin America, but the Bolivian senator Centa Rek López said support for China’s candidacy from certain countries in Latin America “reflects both their own repressive policies, history of human rights abuses and their ties to the People’s Republic of China, which has facilitated corruption, surveillance and economic dependency”.

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The UN general assembly resolution that created the human rights council in 2006, urges countries voting for members to “take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights”. Council members are required to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” at home and abroad and “fully cooperate with the council”.

The UN high commissioner for human rights last year argued that the treatment of Uyghurs “may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis”. The separate unofficial Uyghur tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice KC, found Beijing guilty of genocide on the basis it had acted to prevent Uyghur births.

The UN has issued 83 formal communications since 2018 to China. UN special procedures, the UN’s investigatory arm, complained it had “yet to see any signs of political will to address the concerns raised”. Similarly China has rejected every universal periodic review recommendation to allow UN investigators access, and refused to reply to 19 visit requests.

The UK co-chair of Ipac, Helena Kennedy KC, said: “It’s manifestly clear that China does not meet the criteria for election to the human rights council. Not only does Beijing stand credibly accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, they have obstinately refused to cooperate with official investigators, and even attacked rapporteurs and special procedures delegates for raising concerns.

“In recent years we have seen the People’s Republic of China able to command bloc votes at the council to prevent further debate surrounding Xinjiang. This is a clear and intolerable distortion of an essential human rights institution. While it may not be possible to prevent the PRC’s election this time, a lower vote share would send a strong signal that the rest of the world has had enough.”

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Ipac’s director, Luke de Pulford, refused to be drawn on the target number of votes, but said it would be a huge achievement if the China vote were below 139.