Guest post: David Schanzer on the “U.N. vote against debating China’s atrocities in Xinjiang is a devastating blow to democracy”

Today is another edition of an occasional feature of Lawfire®, the cross-posting of interesting scholarship from other sources.  Today’s essay by Duke University professor David Schanzer is republished with his permission from his Substack site, Perilous Times.  Information about subscribing to Perilous Times can be found here.

U.N. vote against debating China’s atrocities in Xinjiang is a devastating blow to democracy

The Human Rights Council’s vote to block even a debate on this issue is a travesty and demonstrates how anti-democratic forces have spread across the globe 

By David Schanzer

Oct 7, 2022

Yesterday, the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Commission, by a vote of 17-19 (with 11 abstentions), voted to block any debate and discussion of China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang province. This comes after the U.N.’s own human rights office – the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights – concluded after a years-long study that China may have committed numerous, serious crimes against humanity.

I wrote previously in Perilous Times about China’s atrocities, but here is a concise summary of China’s practices:

Mass detention of 800,000 to 2 million people without criminal charge;

Implementation of a massive, all encompassing, invasive surveillance system that provides the security apparatus with data on Uyghur movements, associations, activities, and communications;

The destruction of 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang;

Prohibiting teaching of Uyghur language as the native language in schools;

Population control through forced sterilization, IUDs and abortion (resulting in a 60% drop in birth rates from 2015-18);

Forced repatriation of Uyghurs living abroad;

Retribution against Uyghur activists abroad through threats against or detention of their relatives (for one well documented and gripping example, see the documentary “In Search of My Sister”);

Systematic rape of Uyghur women in detention camps;

Torture and other cruel and inhumane treatment in Xinjiang detention centers and prisons;

Abusive and disproportionate use of the criminal justice system against Uyghurs (there was a  700% increase in criminal charges in Xinjiang in 2017 with 21% of all prosecutions in China occurring in Xinjiang, a province with only 1.5% of the population);

Large scale forced labor camps in multiple industries in Xinjiang (just this week a UN investigator concluded forced labor was occurring “that may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity”).

The vast majority of these practices were documented and confirmed by the High Commissioner’s report. Despite that, 36 nations succumbed to China’s pressure campaign and concluded that the largest scale scale denial of human rights of the 21st century should be ignored by the U.N.’s main human rights enforcement body.

This is stunning and tragic.

First, the linkage between human rights and democracy cannot be overstated. Democracy cannot exist in a country that does not guarantee at least a basic level of human rights. To allow China to continue its gross violation of such fundamental human rights is a sign that much of the world has lost or is losing faith in the attractiveness of democracy as a way to organize society.

Second, this is a clear sign that China’s efforts to undermine the post-World War II liberal rules-based order is succeeding. China seeks to replace this order — which, by and large, has resulted in decades of stability and economic growth for the entire globe — with its own more China-friendly organizational system. While not fully defined, China’s order would disregard human rights as a global norm and shift from a rules-based system for trade and setting technological standards to one that advantages China’s economic power.

China has been building its global influence while the United States and its democratic allies have been asleep at the wheel. For twenty years, the West preoccupied itself with combatting al Qaeda and global terrorism while China was busy building economic relationships, especially with developing nations, through its Belt and Road Initiative and other soft power efforts. This campaign is now paying off with U.N. votes that would have been easy wins for the West in the 1990s.

That this vote could occur at a time when Russia, with China’s backing, has engaged in a neocolonial scorched-earth war against a sovereign nation and its people is even more troubling. It shows that our western lens of looking at the war in Ukraine — where we see the world’s democracies rallying to protect people seeking freedom from an authoritarian imperialist — is not necessarily shared with much of the developing world. These countries are devastated by the energy and food crisis and many of them may be blaming their suffering not on the Russian war machine, but rather on western sanctions (which, by the way, have been imposed on many of them at one time or another in the past).

Looking at the countries who voted with China or abstained has to be a wake-up call to the United States on its diminished stature around the globe and the lack of support for the even basic efforts to enforce human rights:

Against the resolution: Bolivia, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Gabon, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Namibia, Nepal, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, UAE, Uzbekistan, Venezuela (19).

Abstentions: Argentina, Armenia, Benin, Brazil, Gambia, India, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Ukraine (11).

So we have two battles on our hands in these perilous times. There are serious threats to democracy at home and democracy is on the decline around the world. Just as we need a domestic policy that addresses the social and economic grievances that many of our citizens have about their treatment in modern day America, we also need to craft our foreign policy to be more sensitive to the needs and desires of people and nations with whom we share the globe. The days when countries sided with us because they admired our values and believed it would be to their economic advantage are over.

About the author

David Schanzer is a professor of the practice at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy University and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. He teaches courses, conducts research and engages in public dialogue on counterterrorism strategy, counterterrorism law and homeland security.


The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect my views or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  See also here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

You may also like...