• Western countries used a U.N.-backed review of China’s human rights record on Tuesday to press for more freedom of expression and protection of ethnic minorities.
  • Over 160 countries participated in the discussion, with each having a maximum of 45 seconds to speak.
  • In China’s last review in 2018, concerns were raised about its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Western countries used a regular U.N.-backed review of China’s human rights record on Tuesday to press Beijing to do more to allow freedom of expression, protect the rights of ethnic minorities and repeal a security law in Hong Kong that is derided by independent activists, among other things.

China’s ambassador in Geneva, Chen Xu, led a delegation from some 20 ministries in China for the “universal periodic review” under the U.N. Human Rights Council. He stressed China’s progress in poverty eradication, said citizens engage in “democratic elections” and said freedom of religious belief is safeguarded.

“China upholds respect for and protection of human rights as a task of importance in state governance,” Chen said through an interpreter. “We have embarked on a path of human rights development that is in keeping with the trend of the times and appropriate to China’s national conditions and so-called historic achievements in this process.”

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“We uphold the people-centered philosophy and strive to deliver a better life for all the people,” he said.

Chen Xu speaks

Chen Xu, Ambassador of the Permanent Representative Mission of the China to the UN Geneva, who is leading China’s delegation, addresses his statement, during the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group meeting to review China’s human rights record, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on Jan. 23, 2024. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

The process, which encourages constructive recommendations over sharp criticism, nevertheless gave way to firm, if not scathing, advice to China from some leading Western countries.

Leslie Norton of Canada called on China to end “all forms of enforced disappearances targeting human rights defenders, ethnic minorities and Falun Gong practitioners” and urged the repeal of the Hong Kong security law.

Czech Ambassador Vaclav Balek urged China to “end the criminalization of religious and peaceful civil expression by ethnic and religious groups — including Muslim, Uyghurs and Buddhists, Tibetans and Mongolians — under the pretext of protecting state security” and “stop cross-border kidnappings and intimidating Chinese citizens living abroad.”

Anita Pipan, Slovenia’s ambassador in Geneva, recommended China “establish a moratorium on the death penalty” on the way to abolishing it. U.S. Ambassador Michele Taylor presented a list of concerns, concluding with, “We condemn the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and transnational repression to silence individuals abroad.”

Some independent organizations and the United States have accused China of genocide in Xinjiang, but no U.N. bodies have affirmed that. China lashed out at a 2022 report by the then U.N. human rights chief citing possible crimes against humanity committed in the western region.

Kozo Honsei, Japan’s deputy permanent representative in Geneva, called for better protections of the rights of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The hearing offered a wide-ranging look at the human rights situation in China. Bolivia’s envoy commended China’s efforts to reduce deforestation, Burundi’s representative urged China to improve access to health care in central regions and to better housing in Hong Kong and Macao, and Iran praised China’s “national action plan for human rights.”

First secretary Ilia Barmin of Russia’s diplomatic mission advised China “to consistently improve the understanding and capacity of citizens to use standard spoken and written Chinese in Xinjiang,” and Frankye Bronwen Levy, political affairs counselor for South Africa, called on China to strengthen an anti-domestic violence law passed eight years ago.

An extraordinarily high number of more than 160 countries — some critics of Beijing, some allies — registered to take part in the discussion. That meant each country had a maximum of 45 seconds to speak, forcing some ambassadors into what at times felt like a speed-reading exercise.

China’s delegation had a total of 70 minutes to make its case.

The “universal periodic review” involves all U.N. member states coming up for scrutiny — at times sharp — by other countries roughly every five years. The 3 1/2-hour discussion aims to offer constructive criticism and produce a written report that will offer recommendations, not criticism.

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Several groups such as Falun Gong and pro-Tibet activists held small demonstration outside the U.N. Geneva compound during Tuesday’s discussion. Inside, roughly 100 activists from nongovernmental groups attended the session or watched it from a “spillover room” in the vast U.N. complex, officials said.

Several human rights groups had events planned outside China’s review, and the Tibet Advocacy Coalition, the World Uyghur Congress and human rights defenders in Hong Kong were expected to hold a joint news conference after the proceedings.

Another advocacy group aims to speak out against the forced repatriation from China of women from North Korea who fled the nation under leader Kim Jong Un’s rule.

On Monday, four independent human rights experts who work under a mandate from the council called for the release of Jimmy Lai, a former Hong Kong publisher on trial for alleged national security violations, and for all charges against him to be dropped.

At China’s last review in 2018, the United States and other countries voiced concerns about its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

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