Briefing Paper: Strategies for Making China’s 4th UPR Effective in Stopping Atrocity Crimes

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Briefing Paper: Strategies for Making China’s 4th UPR Effective in Stopping Atrocity Crimes

At the conclusion of China’s 2018 Universal Periodic Review (UPR)[1] on the Chinese government (“China” for short hereafter) at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC), Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng declared that his government had accepted 284 of 346 recommendations. Le asserted that the high acceptance rate and “smooth and successful” review proved that Beijing’s human rights record enjoyed “wide recognition.” 

But the overwhelming majority of those accepted recommendations were so weak, vague, or based on flawed assumptions, that progress towards them cannot be meaningfully verified. Worse still, dozens of the accepted recommendations also clearly or implicitly endorse human rights violations. The Chinese government had not accepted 284 recommendations designed to fulfill the UPR’s original objective to “improve…the human rights situation on the ground” and “fulfill…the State’s human rights obligations and commitments.” Making and accepting recommendations that do nothing to halt the authorities’ assault on human rights and their defenders undermines the purpose of the UPR.

The Chinese government has, as in the past three rounds of UPR, systematically blocked victims and civil society from participating in the preparation of its State reports, even though States under review are supposed “to prepare the information through a broad consultation process at the national level with all relevant stakeholders.” The government silenced critical voices domestically and engaged in transnational repression to intimidate victims and NGOs internationally.  China’s state reports inevitably did not present an “objective” assessment of its human rights record.

As United Nations Member States prepare for China’s January 2024 UPR, they should firmly and clearly focus on the goal of making positive changes inside the country at a time when rights are under severe attack. As importantly, diplomats should be acutely aware that they—unlike the victims of Chinese government atrocity crimes or even ordinary citizens—are afforded an opportunity to participate in an assessment of the Chinese government’s rights records in the room during the UPR dialogue. Member States must speak truth to power–before and during and after the January dialogue, inside and beyond the halls at the Palais des Nations. 

Since the last UPR, the Chinese government has expanded and escalated its violations of human rights across the regions of its rule. Mainland human rights defenders and lawyers in China face severe persecution, relentless harassment, and torture in police custody. In Hong Kong, the 2020 National Security Law (NSL) has allowed authorities to rapidly dismantle civil and political rights, with the UN Human Rights Committee raising concerns about the independence of the judiciary being “substantially undermined” by the law and urging the government to take “concrete steps” to repeal the NSL and “in the meantime, refrain from applying it.” Human rights are systematically denied in Tibet, with particular concern for freedom of religion and cultural rights. And the Chinese government is credibly accused of committing on-going crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region. Meanwhile, the Chinese state has a worsening record in terms of cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms, while stepping up its efforts to weaken and undermine the international human rights system.  States must defend the UN human rights system. 

This briefing paper assesses the quality of the recommendations made by Member States in the 3rd UPR in 2018-19, informed by assessments of China’s implementation of selected recommendations, with the purpose of providing critical analysis and a strategic approach for Member States to make the upcoming UPR more conducive to protecting and promoting human rights in China. 

This assessment concludes that governments preparing their participation in China’s 4th UPR should especially: 

  1. Offer recommendations that are designed to stop the worst violations inside the country, and that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Result-Oriented, and Time-bound (S.M.A.R.T.). 
  2. Focus on upholding the highest standards of human rights, not on increasing the likelihood of their recommendations be accepted. 
  3. Reference the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Xinjiang assessment and the extensive communications produced by UN human rights experts and treaty bodies in recommendations. Even if Beijing rejects these recommendations, including them builds a body of evidence for scrutinizing the government’s behavior at the HRC, especially when states consider the suitability of the Chinese government’s bid for HRC membership.
  4. Avoid phrases or policies promoted by the Chinese government that are designed to weaken and undermine international human rights standards and institutions, such the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Civilization Initiative, and “Win-Win Cooperation.” 
  5. Commit to monitoring the UPR process for unacceptable behavior by the Chinese government, including intimidation, reprisals, or threats against civil society participants or UN staff; blocking submissions by independent stakeholders from publication on UN platforms; and flooding the process with government-organized groups (GONGOs).  
  6. Prepare to call out anti-human rights recommendations on the grounds that they betray the mission and objectives of the UPR.

Formulate S.M.A.R.T. Recommendations

In its technical guidelines for civil society and UN stakeholder submissions, the OHCHR advises that recommendations should be “S.M.A.R.T.”: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Result-oriented and Time-bound. 

Unfortunately, many recommendations directed to the Chinese government to improve human rights were weakened by formulations or phrases that fall short of the OHCHR’s S.M.A.R.T. guidance.  Such recommendations make it difficult or impossible to assess the Chinese government’s implementation, which in turn undermines the effectiveness of promoting human rights protection through the UPR.

We cite examples below to illustrate how some recommendations are not “Specific,” “Measurable,” “Achievable,” “Result-oriented,” and/or “Time-bound.” We also assess whether those recommendations are “implemented,” “partially implemented,” or “not implemented.” We will then suggest S.M.A.R.T. recommendations for improving them.

  • Recommend SPECIFIC Action

One example of deficient “specificity” is recommendation 28.63 from China’s 3rd UPR: “28.63 Intensify efforts to promote and fully ensure the rights of women, children and persons with disabilities (Italy).”

This very broad recommendation covers three large yet distinct groups of people. It does not recommend any specific actions, whether adoption of a policy, law, or regulation. It does not suggest changing or ending a particular practice that raised human rights concerns.  Whether and how the government has protected and respected women’s rights, children’s rights, and disability rights involves complex and different measures and assessments. Any assessment of rights protection for one group does not necessarily apply to any other group.  And an assessment of whether or not the Chinese government has “intensif[ied] efforts” across such a broad range of issues would require disaggregating these distinct groups and identifying the specific baselines of any such previous efforts. 

We find that the Chinese government has not implemented 28.63. Women, children, and persons with disabilities in China may enjoy some rights protections, but these protections could hardly be said to have been “fully ensured.” Based on the 2023 CEDAW and CESCR reviews, and the 2022 CRPD review, it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that the Chinese government has clearly not “intensified” any “efforts” to “promote” and “fully ensure” these rights since the last UPR. (See CRPD (2022), CEDAW (2023), and CESCR (2023) “Concluding Observations”).

To improve 28.63, we suggest reformulating this recommendation to meet the “specificity” requirement. A stronger recommendation about protecting disability rights could be formulated this way, for instance: Within the next two years, the Chinese government should bring its certification standards for disability in line with the CRPD definitions and train personnel in disability rights in accordance with the CRPD. Also in two years, the government should seek to close the gap between the 85 million who identified as having a disability in 2010 and those who are certified that they may receive the benefits to which they are entitled. Similarly, recommendations concerning protecting women’s rights or children’s rights could also be reformulated with specific courses of actions.

Another problematic example of a vague recommendation is 28.59: “Continue to protect the rights of vulnerable groups (Hungary).”

This recommendation does not specifically identify particular vulnerable groups.  It asks China to “continue” to do something that the government has not done.  The government has not protected vulnerable groups such as migrant workers, LGBTQ people, or women, and is in fact persecuting vulnerable groups such as the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and house church Christians, among others. The recommended action “to continue” misleadingly presupposed that the government protected these groups prior to 2019. 

If by “vulnerable groups” Hungary meant the communities mentioned above, this recommendation is not implemented. In concluding the 2023 CESCR and CEDAW reviews, the treaty bodies raised concerns about China’s failures to protect the rights of vulnerable groups including rural-to-urban migrant workers, women, LGBTIQ+, Tibetans, Uyghurs, persons with disabilities, and people negatively impacted by projects in China’s Belt & Road Initiative in their enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights in third countries. (E/C.12/CHN/CO/3, CEDAW/C/CHN/CO/9).

  • Make the Outcome MEASURABLE

One example of a recommendation where the outcome of the implementation would be difficult or impossible to measure is “28.229 Strengthen the welfare and well-being of the elderly (Plurinational State of Bolivia).”

The potential issues related to the welfare and well-being of the elderly in China are complex, ranging from guaranteeing a pension, equal protection of social security and equal access to the care for the elderly, without discrimination between rural and urban residents, and equality in mandatory retirement age for women and men, among other issues. This recommendation could be improved by being more specific about what actions are needed to “strengthen” welfare and well-being of the elderly, and by suggesting actions with clear benchmarks. Such actions, once undertaken to address any problems with the welfare and well-being of the elderly, would have outcomes that could be measured against the benchmark. 

Our assessment concludes that recommendation 28.229 is not fully implemented. Since 2018-19, the rights of the elderly in China were inadequately protected. For instance, the government failed to adequately prioritize the protection and care of the elderly in its COVID response. Less than half of the elderly population was fully vaccinated in the year prior to the COVID lockdowns ending in December 2022, resulting in a public health disaster. Researchers estimate that the lack of vaccination resulted in 1.87 million excess deaths, the vast majority of those elderly people. Health officials report that in the month after the lockdowns ended only 60,000 people in total died of COVID-related illnesses. 

As an illustration of how the assessment of this recommendation as not fully implemented is reached, we considered that the 209.78 million people over the age of 65 in China, as of 2022, rely mainly on adult children as the primary source of care. Yet, adult children are often separated from elderly parents due to mass migration to urban industrial centers to find jobs.  Most of the adults cannot afford to bring their elderly parents to the cities due to rural residents’ lack of access to pensions and other benefits, which only urban residents enjoy under the hukou (household registration) system. Subsidized pension coverage is inadequate, a concern which has been raised by the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (E/C.12/CHN/CO/3). But there are significant disparities in government investments in rural versus urban healthcare, and elderly women on average have worse health outcomes than elderly men.

One suggestion, among others, for reformulating this recommendation to meet the S.M.A.R.T. requirements could be: Within two years, end de facto urban-rural discrimination based on the hukou system nationwide and ensure that older internal urban migrants enjoy social security, health-care and other benefits without discrimination.

Recommend Actions with ACHIEVABLE Outcomes

One example of a recommendation where an achievable outcome is hampered by its formulation is “28.332 Continue to protect the rights of migrant workers through legislation (Nepal).”

The main weakness of 28.332 lies in the use of the word “continue.” Recommendations using the word “continue” may hamper any attempt to identify the achievable outcome for measuring implementation.  Unfortunately, many recommendations use “to continue” as the recommended actions. In this case, asking the state party to “continue” to “protect the rights of migrant workers through legislation” presupposes that China has “protected” such rights prior to its last UPR, and that it did so “through legislation.” These presuppositions are both questionable. The labor laws adopted prior to 2018 had clearly not been fully effective or enforced. The rights of migrant workers or any other groups cannot be protected merely through passing legislation alone.

For instance, one of the few mechanisms for redress for workers is to bring their labor disputes to labor dispute arbitration committees (LDACs) and yet, in 2021, workers only won outright in 21% of LDAC decision, and 60% of the time there was a compromise ruling. 

The lack of enforcement of law, and labor law in particular, is a serious problem in China because China does not allow for independent trade unions. As the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights noted in its Concluding Observations, the government has still not ratified the ILO Conventions 87 and 98, on Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, respectively. At the same time, the China has continued to persecute labor rights advocates who have tried to organize or protest on behalf of migrant workers using labor law protections as a tool.

This recommendation effectively asks China to maintain a rights-denying status quo, rather than pushing for improvement.  

This is why governments should avoid recommending “continuation” as a recommended action.

We suggest a S.M.A.R.T. recommendation: Ratify Conventions 87 and 98 within one year and immediately enforce all laws to protect migrant labor rights and stop persecuting labor organizers and labor rights defenders. 

Another example of formulating a recommended action without an “achievable” outcome is 28.76: “Accelerate human rights education for all to build a fair and just society where human rights are fully respected (Lesotho).”

28.76 recommends the government “accelerate” “human rights education,” but the Chinese government has hardly carried out any “human rights” education in line with international standards either for government officials or “for all” in the general public before the 2019 UPR. Such phrasing based a misleading premise allows the Chinese government to easily accept the recommendation and indirectly claim credit for something it did not actually do.

By relying on similarly misleading presuppositions about non-existing conditions or missing actions, recommendations formulated by using works like “continue,” “accelerate,” “enhance,” or “expand” allowed the Chinese government to accept many such recommendations during the last UPR. This may create the illusion that the Chinese government had achieved something that it had not done.  

In our assessment, we skip the action “accelerate,” and focus on the action this recommendation touched upon—conducting human rights education for all. We conclude that such a recommended action is not implemented. What may have been referred to as “human rights education” in schools, or “human rights training” for government officials are not in line with international standards.  Educational materials on human rights have not been included in school textbooks.  Any “human rights education” referred to by the Chinese government reports are mandatory studying of either Xi Jinping’s speeches on human rights or state policies, or existing Chinese laws and regulations. 

For a S.M.A.R.T. recommendation instead, we suggest: Make human rights education in compliance with international standards available in schools and mandatory for all government officials and employees in one year.

  • Make RESULT-ORIENTED Recommendations

One example of a recommendation that is not oriented toward achieving discernible results is 28.266: “Expand the balanced development of compulsory education and the delivery of public services in urban and rural areas (Bahrain).”

The main action recommended here is the “expansion” of “balanced development.” “Expansion” implicitly assumed that “balanced development” had already existed before the previous UPR. Yet that assumption was problematic. Severe disparities in compulsory education and other public services between rural and urban areas exist and continue to existafter 2019, and has arguably worsened. This recommendation effectively asked China to “expand” what it had not achieved—balanced or equal rural-urban protection of children’s right to education and access to public services. This recommendation is thus not results-oriented for promoting and protecting the related human rights. 

In trying to assess the implementation of this recommendation, we have tried to interpret the language as, “Guarantee equal access to compulsory education by rural and urban children and equal access to public services by rural and urban residents.” Such a reformulated recommendation, however, as our assessment finds, has not been implemented. Access to compulsory education has been often denied to the children of migrant workers who live in the cities, especially at thelevels of kindergarten and high school, and the quality of education in rural areas is often very poor.  The delivery of public services (education, healthcare, pension, and other social security benefits) has not been equal for urban and rural residents.  There has been no substantial “expansion” of “balanced development” of these services for both rural and urban residents.  In its 2023 review, CESCR raised concerns that “rural-to-urban migrant workers…are still de facto discriminated against in the fields of housing, employment, social security, health care and education.” (E/C.12/CHN/CO/3, para. 37). 

To formulate a S.M.A.R.T. recommendation on this topic, we suggest: Provide equal access within two years to public services and social benefits, including compulsory education, without discrimination to rural residents and rural to urban migrant workers and their children, and abolish the discriminatory household registration system (hukou).

Another example of a recommendation that suffers from the problems coming with using “continue” as the recommended action is 28.73: “Continue to implement its National Human Rights Action Plan (Cambodia).”

Due to the use of “continue,” this recommendation is not result-oriented and has the effect of prolonging existing problems. The recommended action — “continue to implement”—does not question but rather presupposes that the National Action Plan had been implemented before 2019. In so doing, it also gives the impression that the National Action Plan had been comprehensive, concrete, or had enforceable stipulations, or measurable benchmarks. It does not question whether the Action Plan was in compliance with China’s international human rights obligations. This sort of recommendation squanders an opportunity to engage constructive criticism of the National Action Plans and whether they are oriented towards achieving human rights results.

If we revise the formulation and make its recommended action into “implement its National Action Plan to promote human rights,” then we could assess its results.  It is not implemented. Many measures included in the National Human Rights Action Plan (2016-2020) have not been implemented largely due to its lack of enforceable measures or measurable outcomes. Moreover, this National Action Plan falls far short of the international human rights obligations that China must meet under the UN Charter and the human rights treaties it has ratified.  This National Action Plan was not designed in a way that was open to public consultation or civil society participation. It lacks enforceable public policies and specific benchmarks. It fails to set key reform targets in order to end systemic violations and protect human rights, including a clear timetable for ratifying the ICCPR, signing or ratifying other outstanding human rights treaties and conventions, or for ending the death penalty.

28.73 could be reformulated into a S.M.A.R.T. recommendation: Within one year, redesign a National Human Rights Action Plan that is in full compliance with international human rights standards, devised in broad consultation with civil society and UN human rights experts, with specific, achievable and measurable benchmarks; and adopt concrete measures in such a National Action Plan to effectively protect and promote human rights.

  • Make Recommended Actions TIME-BOUND

One example of a recommendation that was not time-bound is 28.300: “Promote the healthy development of children in poverty-stricken areas and prevent the inter-generational transmission of poverty.” (Kuwait)

This recommendation, in addition to being not specific and not easily measurable, fails to provide a timeline for implementing the recommended action.  Such open-ended actions are difficult for giving a precise assessment for implementation. In order to be able to assess implementation of a recommendation, the time frame should be at least within the UPR cycle (two years for mid-term UPR assessment, or for recommendations asking for ending certain actions, immediately.)

The Chinese government does not systematically track poverty for children in poverty-stricken areas or areas of poverty due to inter-generational transmission. Both seem likely to have increased given that overall poverty increased during the economic disruption caused by COVID lockdowns (2020-2022), with an estimated 14.4 million people slipping into poverty. Children in rural areas have been severely impacted by the mass closure of over 300,000 schools in rural areas beginning in the 2000s and continuing through the present. A 2014 survey estimated that only 37 percent of rural students were able to enter high school after graduating from middle school, and quality of education is also an issue. One studyfound that 91 percent of students at vocational rural high schools scored the same or worse on tests after a year of school.

To reformulate this into a S.M.A.R.T. recommendation, we suggest: Develop routine measures for poverty among children in urban and rural regions within one year; guarantee rural children equal access to social services and education on par with urban peers and re-open and adequately fund schools in rural areas within two years.

Calling Out Anti-Human Rights Recommendations

The recommendations that essentially or implicit endorse or encourage law and practices in violation of international human rights standards are unacceptable. Such recommendations betray the mission and objectives of the UPR.

We have identified at least a couple dozens of such unacceptable recommendations that member states made to the Chinese government in the last cycle of UPR. These member states, in so doing, misused the platform of UPR. Rather than making recommendations for improving protection and promoting human rights, they instead applaud or urge China to strengthen or expand laws, regulations, and practices that violate human rights and undermine international standards. These recommendations should be rejected as “unacceptable” for the UPR.  These kinds of recommendations stand in stark tension with the UPR’s goals articulated by UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which stipulates that this unique mechanism is designed “to prompt, support, and expand the promotion and protection of human rights in every country.” Governments should single out and argue against such anti-human rights recommendations. 

Here are some examples of what could be called out as “unacceptable” recommendations made to China in the 3rd UPR:

28.210 Continue ensuring the legal protection of activity by foreign non-governmental organizations, as provided for by the relevant law (Russian Federation).

This recommendation, seemingly unproblematic, is however unacceptable for UPR because it practically supports a Chinese law that suppresses national and international NGOs, curtailing their ability to exercise their rights to free association and peaceful assembly in operating independently. While a government may regulate NGOs and prosecuting crimes, but using a law under the guise of regulating or managing NGOs to suppress NGOs’ work and shut down their space is in violation of human rights to freedom of expression and association.   By the time this recommendation was made in late 2018, it was clear that China’s Foreign NGO Management Law was stifling the space for international NGOs in China, and making any interaction between Chinese NGOs and Foreign NGOs that had not been pre-approved by the government subject to criminal penalties.  Of course, it is notable that China’s Foreign NGO Law, which was drafted in 2015 and came into effect in 2017, largely mirrored the Russian laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” in its goals.

CESCR in its 2023 Concluding Observations raised concerns about the “…excessive restrictions with regard to the operation of independent non-governmental organizations, both in law and in practice, particularly with respect to non-governmental organizations working for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities” (E/C.12/CHN/CO/3, para 13.)

Cambodia made a similarly problematic recommendation: 28.202 Punish online criminal activities according to the existing law (Cambodia).

While there are, of course, online criminal activities that merit being criminalized (such as scamming or hacking), China adopts and uses relevant laws to criminalize freedom of expression on the internet. Since 2013, prosecutors and courts in China have used the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” to arbitrarily punish online speech or information that the government wishes to censor. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has considered this and other charges to be “so vague and overly broad that it was impossible to invoke a legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty” (A/HRC/WGAD/2018/62, para 58).  The Committee against Torture in its 2015 Concluding Observations likewise expressed concern that “…human rights defenders and lawyers, petitioners, political dissidents and members of religious or ethnic minorities continue to be charged, or threatened to be charged, with broadly defined offences as a form of intimidation,” including concerns regarding “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and national security crimes (CAT/C/CHN/CO/5, para 36). Cambodia’s recommendation practically endorses China indiscriminatory criminalization of online speech without legal safeguard for protected speech under international huma rights law.

The above recommendations made by Russia and Cambodia directly oppose the principles guiding the UPR—respect and protect human rights, including the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and free expression—and, once implemented, as the Chinese government has, the outcome is and has been the systematic and legal suppression of human rights NGOs such as the Changsha Funeng

Such recommendations should not have any place on the list of UPR recommendations intended to suggest effective measures, actions, policies, etc. for protecting and promoting human rights. UN member states should improve the UPR process to ensure that there are clear guidelines restricting government from making anti-human rights recommendations.  It must be taken off from the list and rejected for its destructive impact on the mission and objective of the UPR.

There was also a set of recommendations that should be called out for being unacceptable for their effect of weakening universal human rights norms. For instance:

28.36 Continue to forge a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win cooperation, and build a community with a shared future for human beings (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela).

On its face, the language of this recommendation may seem unproblematic, nor clearly anti-human rights. However, it should be considered unacceptable for the UPR for the following considerations. The language borrows politicized slogans from Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “Global Civilization Initiative,” which seeks to weaken universal human rights norm and international institutions, and it borrows other Chinese government policy terminology used to justify or obscure severe human rights violations. Phrases like “community for a shared future for human beings” indirectly shield Xi’s rule from legitimate human rights scrutiny of Chinese government jailing thousands of prisoners of conscience and its ongoing crimes against humanity. Such scrutiny, guided by international human rights law, has been rejected by Xi’s government as “disrespectful,” “unfair,” or inimical to “win-win cooperation.”

For similar reasons, several other recommendations also have the effect of undermining universal human rights principles, and they should also be called out as unacceptable for the UPR: 

28.37 Continue to promote constructive dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation with the framework of multilateral human rights mechanisms (Cuba).

28.38 Continue to promote respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity in the work of multilateral human rights mechanisms (Cuba). 

28.39 Continue to combat politicization and double standards in the field of human rights (Cuba).

28.121 Safeguard its political system and the development path chosen by its own people (Islamic Republic of Iran).

There are other recommendations that are unacceptable for different reasons, for instance: 28.45 Continue to promote the Belt and Road Initiative to help other developing countries in their development endeavours (Pakistan). This recommendation fails to acknowledge the potential for negative human rights impacts —on labor rights, environmental rights, etc.—brought by China, where the government has systematically suppressed NGOs promoting these rights – to other countries via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Indeed, CESCR raised a series of concerns about the negative effects on economic, social, and cultural rights in third countries due to the BRI (E/C.12/CHN/CO/3, para 22 and 23.)  The Chinese government has yet to make it mandatory for enterprises domiciled in China to adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Such a recommendation should also be considered unacceptable in a review aimed at promoting human rights.

For another example, 28.187 Continue to conduct friendly exchanges in the religious field with other provinces to increase mutual understanding (Saudi Arabia). This recommendation should be considered unacceptable because it essentially encourages the Chinese government to spread its suppression of religious freedom to other countries. The Chinese government has engaged in numerous “friendly exchanges” with countries since the last UPR, but they were highly choreographed to give participants a false perception of religious freedom.  For example, in 2023, a delegation from the Arab League visited the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and they specifically visited mosques, such as Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque, to underscore that these were protected, working religious sites.  For example, in 2023, a delegation from the Arab League visited the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and they specifically visited mosques, such as the Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque, with the attempt to underscore that they were working religious sites. However, later reports, drawing from firsthand videos posted to Douyin (domestic TikTok) and confirmation from local police, journalists found that the Id Kah Mosque was open for tourism but not regular worship. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found, using satellite imagery analysis, that an estimated 16,000 mosque in the XUAR had been destroyed or damaged since 2017. Similarly, a Financial Times investigation found that three quarters of mosques nationwide had been modified or destroyed since 2018.

Other unacceptable recommendations that implicitly endorse or encourage the Chinese state’s suppression of religious freedom and crimes against humanity in the name of “national security” or “counter-terrorism” in the Xinjiang region include: 

28.155 Continue to strengthen the legislative framework on counter-terrorism and to implement relevant laws (Egypt);

28.151 Continue to implement the Counter-Terrorism Law and protect people from terrorist threats (Belarus);

28.146 Continue its efforts to maintain and promote peace and stability and the welfare of its people living in ethnic minority areas, including through action against terrorist organization and individuals (Pakistan).

28.148 Continue to fight against terrorism and extremism and separatist tendencies to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity (Syrian Arab Republic). 

The recommendations adopt China’s counter-terrorism narratives wholesale, without showing any recognition of the massive suppression of ethnic religious Uyghurs and other population groups in the name of counter-terrorism law. These recommendations have the effect of endorsing violations of human rights in China’s counter-terrorism campaigns. Since 2017, UN human rights experts have sent at least eight communications to the Chinese government, raising grave concerns about human rights violations affecting Uyghurs and other predominately Muslim ethnic minorities. In particular, in 2019, the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism and eleven other Special Procedures wrote a detailed letter to the Chinese government outlining concerns related to China’s Counter-Terrorism Law and “practices of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, absence of judicial oversight and procedural safeguards and restrictions of the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to education and the right to freedom of movement within an increasingly securitized environment, particularly for designated minorities, notably Uyghurs and Tibetans.” The independent experts concluded that China’s Counter-Terrorism Law was not in compliance with the state’s human rights obligation and did not include a definition of terrorism in line with international best practices.  

The UN OHCHR’s assessment of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has concluded that “…serious human rights violations have been committed in XUAR in the context of the Government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-‘extremism’ strategies. The implementation of these strategies, and associated policies in the XUAR has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights. These patterns of restrictions are characterized by a discriminatory component, as the underlying acts often directly or indirectly affect Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities…”  The assessment also found that the “…arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups” may constitute “crimes against humanity.” 

Caution: “Acceptance” Doesn’t Mean “Implementation”

Beijing was able to easily accept many recommendations because these recommendations were unacceptable and weak – not S.M.A.R.T.  The Chinese government then held out its high number of accepted recommendations as evidence of its cooperation with UN human rights system even as credible allegations of human rights atrocities, including ones of possible crimes against humanity, were brought forward—some by the OHCHR—during the same period. 

At the last UPR, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng stated unambiguously: “China is open to accept all recommendation if they are consistent with China’s realities.” In other words, the Chinese government will only accept UPR recommendations that do not change the current—appalling—realities of human rights violations in the country.

This is precisely why we urge governments to stop giving so much weight to making their recommendations likely “acceptable” to the Chinese government. It has been the case that the Chinese government often rejects strong, or S.M.A.R.T., recommendations.  However, even when rejected, strong recommendations could uphold the highest standards of human rights, set clear benchmark, lay bare the discrepancies between the Chinese government’s obligations and its performance. Over time, since the first UPR, some very strong recommendations, such as those demanding the Chinese government to abolish the Re-education Through Labor detention system, or forbid admission of evidence extracted from torture in court trials, or forbid forced abortion and sterilization, were repeatedly rejected, but gradually adopted in legislation or implemented, if only partially. 

If governments take seriously the purpose of the UPR, they should come to Geneva equipped with strong recommendations designed to end crimes against humanity, torture, arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, forced labor, and reprisals against and suppression of human rights defenders, and to bring Chinese laws into conformity with UN human rights treaties. To do less is to squander an opportunity systematically denied to people across China. 

[1] The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council that calls for each UN Member State to undergo a review of its human rights record every 4-5 years with the goal of improving its human rights performance. Through dialogue and discussion with other UN Member States, the UPR is supposed to be conducted in an “objective, transparent, non-selective, constructive, non‑confrontational and non‑politicized manner”. 

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