UIghur people demonstrate against China outside of the United Nations (UN) offices during the Universal Periodic Review…
FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP/Getty Images
By Terry Glavin
The performance of the United Nations Human Rights Council in subjecting China to one of its periodic reviews in Geneva this week was everything critics have long pointed out about the UN system generally, and the UN’s human rights function specifically. It was a carnival of technocratic surrealism, polite uselessness and outrageous lies.
If that seems a bit harsh, then let’s just say it wasn’t exactly the best advertisement for the rules-based global order that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and the rest keep telling us we must defend against creepy anti-globalization populists like U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil’s just-elected Jair Bolsonaro.
It was a farce.
For more than a year now, there has been mounting, detailed evidence that Beijing has been rounding up hundreds of thousands of harmlessly devout Muslim Uighurs – perhaps a million of them – and forcing them into re-education camps where they are subjected to ritualized humiliation, Communist Party indoctrination, beatings and torture. Investigators with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights aren’t even allowed to visit the camps.
After having first denied the camps’ mere existence, a few weeks ago China turned to describing dozens of high-security facilities in the eastern province of Xinjiang, all surrounded by locked gates, razor wire and sentry towers, as “vocational training schools.” Xinjiang, a predominantly Turkic region, has become increasingly overwhelmed by Han Chinese domination and Beijing’s police-state surveillance infrastructure, with military checkpoints everywhere, arbitrary arrests and disappearances – all the dirty habits of state terror.
On Tuesday in Geneva, Beijing’s emissaries persisted in a charade of brazen, outright falsehoods. The point of the facilities in Xinjiang is to protect “the human rights of the vast majority,” Le Yucheng, China’s deputy foreign minister, claimed. “It’s another important contribution of China’s to the global counterterror field.”
For more than a year now, there has been mounting, detailed evidence that Beijing has been rounding up hundreds of thousands of harmlessly devout Muslim Uighurs – perhaps a million of them – and forcing them into re-education camps.
On Tuesday, Canada ended up joining with several western countries, including Britain, Germany, France and the United States, in demanding answers and action on the situation in Xinjiang (the U.S. was attending as an observer state, after Trump withdrew from the Human Rights Council in June). Deputy permanent UN representative Tamara Mawhinney said Canada expects China to refrain from “prosecution and persecution on the basis of religion or belief,” and called on Beijing to “release Uyghurs and other Muslims who have been detained arbitrarily and without due process for their ethnicity or religion.”
Well done, then. But when the day began, Canada’s contribution stood out not for its candour, but for its weirdness. While most western countries each submitted numerous advance questions on China’s human rights compliance that were fairly elaborate and detailed, touching on China’s multiplying and worsening outrages against several UN human rights charters and covenants, Canada submitted a single, one-sentence question. “What steps is China taking to grant equal marriage and family protections to LGBTI couples in its new Civil Code?”
“We were kind of shocked and disappointed that the advance question they asked was only about that,” Patrick Poon, Amnesty International’s China researcher, told me. “In the future they should show more willingness to ask more important questions and raise more issues to make the process more meaningful.”
Speaking by telephone from Hong Kong, Poon told me it was particularly disheartening that so many UN member states appeared to take the opportunity of China’s five-year periodic review to flatter Beijing, or to pitch comically softball questions, and that not one of the UN’s 50 Muslim-majority countries forcefully challenged Beijing for its persecution of the Muslim Uighurs.
“We were hoping Muslim countries would bring more attention to the situation in Xinjiang,” Poon told me. “Most countries didn’t mention Xinjiang at all. That’s something we need to ask. Why are they so quiet about their Muslim brothers and sisters in Xinjiang?”
Poon reckoned the near silence of the Muslim-majority states, and the preposterously obsequious “questions” fielded by the usual unfree hellholes like Venezuela and Russia, can be explained by China’s ambitiously expansionist role in the world and a reluctance to tempt Beijing’s punishment by lost business opportunities. There’s also the awkward matter of state-sanctioned religious persecution that is commonplace in Muslim-majority countries.
But this, too, is awkward. While Canadian diplomats were in Geneva prepping for Tuesday’s opportunity to speak for 45 seconds on the subject of Beijing’s utter disregard for the human rights of China’s 1.4 billion people – each UN member state was allotted 45 seconds on Tuesday – several federal cabinet ministers and provincial premiers and assorted senior officials were prepping for a trip to China to talk business. Among them: Finance Minister Bill Morneau, International Trade Diversification Minister Jim Carr, Federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, Treasury Board president Scott Brison, and the premiers of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
It’s business as usual. And that’s how it works in the rules-based global order we are all summoned to champion. This is, shall we say, something of a challenge that is certainly not made any less greasy by the emergence of Chinese leader Xi Jinping as the loudest and most powerful poster boy for an “open global economy that is innovative and inclusive,” as he himself calls it.
Xi’s tributes to the international order might well be indistinguishable from the sorts of things you will routinely hear from the European Commission’s Jean-Claude Juncker, or even our own Foreign Affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland. But he is also President of the People’s Republic of China, Communist Party general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission, chief of the Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs, and head of China’s Central National Security Commission. He is a gargoyle, a kleptocrat, and a thug.
At an international gathering of chief executives and trade ministers in Shanghai on Monday, Xi lauded the infrastructure of capitalist globalism, calling for deeper trade liberalization and global governance. He praised the G20, the Asia Pacific Economic Council and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Xi had especially kind words for the World Trade Organization, urging that its rules be followed assiduously, and that the global multilateral trading system that the WTO oversees should be firmly defended.
And that’s the contradiction at the heart of Canada’s current preoccupation with ingratiating itself with enough UN member states to earn a useless non-voting place at the UN Security Council. It’s the structural flaw in each of Trudeau’s fervent defences of trade-based multilateralism and globalized free trade, and the 70-year global order that is crumbling all around us.
If this is what it has come to, and it’s just business as usual, it’s not worth defending.
Terry Glavin is a journalist and author.