China’s UPR Report Card: Rating Governments on Their Response to Uyghur Atrocities at the UN

UPR Report Card (2)

February 8, 2024

UHRP Insights column by Peter Irwin, Associate Director for Research and Advocacy, Uyghur Human Rights Project

“Continue implementing knowledge renewal projects and skills upgrade initiatives.” (Burkina Faso)

“Continue to share research findings and experiences based on China’s own realities.” (Zimbabwe)

“Actively participate in the formation of international human rights norms.” (South Sudan)

If you were asked to develop recommendations for how a government might improve its human rights record, you surely wouldn’t start here—nor would you have any idea what any of these statements actually mean.

But that’s the point.

China underwent a major human rights review at the UN last month—the Universal Periodic Review, or UPR—where member states were given 45 seconds (!) to reel off as many (or as few) recommendations as they could.

UHRP has submitted information for consideration in the last three UPRs in 2009, 2013, and 2018, and was on the ground in Geneva meeting with UN member states throughout 2023 and for the review on January 23. Our 2023 submission covered a wide range of issues and draws from UHRP’s original research since 2018.

[Scroll down for the UHRP “China UPR Report Card” rating UN member-states’ formal recommendations to China relating to Uyghurs]

In some ways the process has devolved into a kind of performance. China rallies allies to heap praise on its human rights record under the guise of tepidly worded “recommendations.”

When Turkmenistan recommends China to “Implement consistently national programmes and plans to ensure human rights” or when Libya recommends China “Continue successful efforts to combat poverty,” what are we to make of this? How could this kind of mechanism actually move the needle?

The answer is that many governments purposefully choose vaguely worded recommendations to ensure they don’t provoke the wrath of the Chinese government or to avoid criticism of their own record. The process often reveals a diplomatic charade that prioritizes political posturing over substantive change.

Reporting ahead of the review showed China had been conducting extensive lobbying to ensure there were no surprises. One diplomatic note from the Chinese government read: “I would kindly request your delegation to render valuable support to China and make constructive recommendations in the interactive dialogue […] taking into account the friendly relations and cooperation between our two countries.”

On the other hand, however, dozens of member states chose not to sing the government’s praises, taking the opportunity to make clear, concise, and achievable recommendations.

“Implement all recommendations of the OHCHR report on Xinjiang and of UN treaty bodies.” (Germany)

“Respond positively to outstanding requests for visits of special procedures, including to Tibet and Xinjiang, in particular those working on slavery, counterterrorism, religion or belief, and business and human rights.” (Belgium)

“Cease the destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage and clarify the demolition or damaging of religious sites, as well as Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz UNESCO listed cultural items.” (Austria)

That’s more like it. 

Despite many governments playing no constructive role during the review, others took the opportunity to reinforce—and focus attention on—what independent UN bodies have already said.

The UPR and the Uyghurs

Eleven governments explicitly referred to the 2022 assessment by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which included over a dozen recommendations for the Chinese government. Ten governments highlighted the recommendations already made in  several Treaty Body reviews since 2018.

Several governments—including Peru, Paraguay, Mexico, Argentina, and The Bahamas—recommended China consider or accept visits from UN experts. As UHRP pointed out in our stakeholder submission ahead of the UPR, despite claiming it seeks “cooperation” with UN mechanisms and special procedures mandate-holders, China has allowed access to a very small group of experts, on a very selective basis, since 2018.

Many governments from the “Western European and other States” (WEOG) regional group raised reprisals and the detention of human rights defenders, religious repression, cultural rights, women’s rights, enforced disappearances, and forced labour. 

Here are a few other standouts:

  • Mexico and Ecuador made recommendations related to business and human rights
  • Iraq recommended China protect antiquities and cultural heritage—a possible oblique reference to China’s widespread campaign to demolish Uyghur cultural heritage
  • Costa Rica made a recommendation for China to “establish norms” on the use of biometric data for facial recognition systems and cyber policing
  • Chile, Mexico, and Iceland made recommendations related to reproductive rights of women, a possible nod to extensive reports of forced sterilizations and rapid declines in birth rates in the Uyghur region
  • Mongolia made a recommendation for China to protect and promote cultural diversity
  • Although weakly and vaguely worded, Indonesia called on China to “strengthen the protection of freedom of religion or belief for all people”

What Uyghurs Need From Member States

UHRP and Uyghur advocates expect and demand that governments live up to their obligations when they engage at the UN on human rights. There is unanimity on the part of UN independent human rights experts on China’s “systematic human rights violations” in East Turkistan. Every government making recommendations last month understood this, but many chose the path of least resistance instead of a genuine attempt to encourage desperately needed change.

If the system simply reproduces state narratives that obscure obvious rights abuses, then the UPR process itself risks becoming what former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan feared about the Human Rights Commission—the body replaced by the current Human Rights Council.

A year before the Commission was replaced, Annan said: “States have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights, but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others. As a result, a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”

As we detail below, some states have attempted to engage in good faith with the system, but far too many are pushing in the direction that Annan feared nearly 20 years ago.

Below is a table collating all recommendations1The section on counterproductive recommendations excludes those that indirectly address issues faced by Uyghurs, but are framed in a way that negates the existence of a problem (i.e. language that recommends China to “continue to…” take certain actions, which falsely suggests that steps have already been taken).made by member states relating directly or indirectly to Uyghurs during China’s 4th Cycle Universal Periodic Review at the UN in Geneva on January 23, 2024.

China UPR Report Card: Recommendations Addressing Atrocities Against Uyghurs
ThemeMember StateRecommendationQuality
OHCHR assessmentSwitzerlandImplement the recommendations of the 2022 OHCHR report on Xinjiang and investigate the extent of arbitrary detentions that may constitute crimes against humanityStrong
OHCHR assessment
Repeal legislation and cease practices which discriminate against Tibetans and Uyghurs on the basis of race or religion; cease arbitrary detention, coercive labour transfer and family separation programs; and end restrictions on movement and on rights to enjoy their own culture and language, consistent with the OHCHR and other treaty body reports on Xinjiang and TibetStrong
OHCHR assessmentNew ZealandImplement recommendations from the 2022 OHCHR assessment of human rights concerns in XinjiangStrong
OHCHR assessmentNetherlandsImplement immediately all recommendations on Xinjiang of the OHCHR assessment report and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women reviewsStrong
OHCHR assessmentLiechtensteinImplement the recommendations of the OHCHR’s assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous RegionStrong
OHCHR assessmentGermanyImplement all recommendations of the OHCHR report on Xinjiang and of UN treaty bodiesStrong
OHCHR assessmentDenmarkImmediately implement the recommendations from the OHCHR assessment on XinjiangStrong
OHCHR assessmentUnited KingdomCease the persecution and arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and Tibetans, and allow genuine freedom of religion or belief and cultural expression without fear of surveillance, torture, forced labour, or sexual violence, and implement OHCHR recommendations on XinjiangStrong
OHCHR assessmentLuxembourgImplement the recommendations of the report of the Office of the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in XinjiangStrong
Treaty Body recommendations New ZealandImplement the 2023 recommendations by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion by ethnic and religious minorities including ethnic Uyghurs and TibetansStrong
Cooperation EstoniaCooperate fully with all human rights treaty bodies and implement their recommendationsSomewhat strong
CooperationUkraineCooperate fully with the United Nations human rights mechanismsAmbiguous
Cooperation/accessBahamasConsider extending a standing invitation to all thematic special procedures of the Human Rights CouncilSomewhat strong
Cooperation/accessArgentinaContinue collaborating with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and allow more visits and technical exchanges, in order to facilitate the implementation of recommendations made by OHCHR, treaty bodies, special procedures, and the third cycle of the Universal Periodic ReviewAmbiguous
AccessCanadaGrant the UN, including the OHCHR and special procedures, full and unfettered access to all regions of China, including Tibet and XinjiangStrong
AccessLuxembourgExtend a standing invitation to the special procedures of the Human Rights CouncilStrong
AccessMexicoConsider accepting requests for visits from special procedures, and provide them with access and information in accordance with the Terms of ReferenceSomewhat strong
AccessLatviaRespond positively to pending visit requests by the special procedures mandate holders of the Human Rights CouncilSomewhat strong
AccessParaguayAccept requests for visits from special procedures and consider issuing an open and standing invitationSomewhat strong
AccessNorwayAllow unhindered access to UN special rapporteurs and independent experts to evaluate persistent reports of violations of human rights in China, including in Xinjiang and TibetStrong
AccessFinlandInvite the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit China, including XinjiangStrong
AccessEstoniaCooperate fully with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Procedures mandate holders and ensure their unrestricted access to all regions of ChinaStrong
AccessUnited StatesPermit the UN unhindered and meaningful access particularly in Xinjiang and TibetStrong
AccessPolandGrant the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the special procedures full access to all regions of ChinaStrong
AccessBelgiumRespond positively to outstanding requests for visits of special procedures, including to Tibet and Xinjiang, in particular those working on slavery, counterterrorism, religion or belief, and business and human rightsStrong
Forced laborFranceReport on the implementation of ILO fundamental Conventions 29 and 105 on forced labourSomewhat strong
Forced laborGermanyAbolish all coercive practices in labour transfer programs and boarding schoolsSomewhat strong
DiscriminationRomaniaTake immediate measures aiming at combating discrimination on any grounds for all citizens of China, including for persons belonging to religious and ethnic minoritiesSomewhat strong
DiscriminationUnited StatesCease discrimination against individuals’ culture, language, religion or belief, end forcible assimilation policies, including boarding schools, in Tibet and XinjiangSomewhat strong
DiscriminationMontenegroReview the legal framework on national security, counterterrorism and minority rights in Xinjiang, and repeal discriminatory laws and policies against Uyghur and other ethno-religious minoritiesStrong
DiscriminationMarshall IslandsImplement the Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recommending to immediately stop reprisals against human rights defenders, journalists, and individuals belonging to minority groupsSomewhat strong
DiscriminationTurkmenistanPursue efforts aimed at promoting rights of children, women, persons with disabilities, ethnic minoritiesSomewhat weak
DiscriminationCroatiaAdopt effective legislative measures to eliminate discriminatory acts against ethnic minoritiesAmbiguous
DiscriminationItalyTake effective measures to prevent any form of discrimination against ethnic and religious groups and minoritiesAmbiguous
DiscriminationMaltaRecognize all ethnic groups in the country on an equal basis as recommended by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial DiscriminationAmbiguous
DiscriminationBahrainImprove further measures to reduce inequalities and discrimination against minorities and migrantsWeak
Legal frameworkUnited StatesRepeal vague national security, counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, and sedition laws, including the National Security Law in Hong KongStrong
Legal frameworkJapanGuarantee transparent legal procedures, including fair trials, access to legal representatives of defendants’ choosing, and prompt notifications to familiesStrong
Cultural rightsCzechiaEnd the criminalization of religious and peaceful civil expression by ethnic and ethno-religious groups, including Muslim Uyghurs and Buddhist Tibetans and Mongolians, under the pretext of protecting state securityStrong
Cultural rightsLithuaniaEnsure that children in all regions, including Tibetan children, are guaranteed the right to use their language in every aspect of their schoolingSomewhat strong
Cultural rightsAustriaRepeal policies to forcibly assimilate Tibetan and Uyghur people culturally, religiously and linguistically, abolish Chinese-language boarding school systems for Tibetan and Uyghur pupils and ensure their right to education without discrimination, family life and cultural rightsStrong
Cultural rightsDenmarkAbolish immediately coerced residential school systems imposed on Tibetan children and ensure that persons belonging to minorities can fully enjoy their cultural rights and use their own languageStrong
Cultural rightsGreeceEnsure further the full and unrestricted enjoyment by minorities of their cultural rights and their right to education, as well as protect their cultural diversity, practices and heritage, in implementation of relevant Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women concluding observationsSomewhat strong
Cultural rightsIraqMake more efforts to protect antiquities and cultural heritageSomewhat strong
Cultural rightsMongoliaTake necessary measures to protect and promote cultural diversityAmbiguous
Cultural rightsPeruStrengthen efforts to guarantee cultural diversity and promote the full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rightsAmbiguous
Cultural rightsGambiaReinforce the safeguarding of ethnic and religious minorities’ rights by promoting the preservation of cultural identitiesSomewhat weak
Cultural rightsJapanProtect the rights of minorities, including the Tibetans and Uighurs, including their rights to enjoy their cultural and religious practices as recommended by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural RightsSomewhat strong
Cultural rightsParaguayTake into account the recommendations of Treaty bodies to respect the civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights of people belonging to ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities in its territorySomewhat strong
Cultural rightsAustriaCease the destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage and clarify the demolition or damaging of religious sites, as well as Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz UNESCO listed cultural itemsStrong
Business and human rightsEcuadorPromote the necessary measures to ensure that companies and financial institutions operating in its territory and abroad respect human rights in all their business activitiesSomewhat strong
Business and human rightsPeruContinue developing measures to ensure that the foreign activities of companies subject to its jurisdiction do not undermine, but promote the enjoyment of human rightsAmbiguous
Economic rightsMexicoImplement the recommendations on business and human rights issued by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to ChinaSomewhat strong
Religious freedomIndonesiaStrengthen the protection of freedom of religion or belief for all people and ensure its effective implementation on the groundAmbiguous
Religious freedomFranceGuarantee the protection of freedom of religion, particularly for Uyghur and Tibetan peopleStrong
ReprisalsEstoniaEnable all members of civil society to freely engage with international human rights mechanisms without fear of intimidation and reprisalsStrong
ReprisalsCosta RicaRemove excessive restrictions on the functioning of independent NGOsSomewhat strong
ReprisalsUnited StatesCease harassment, surveillance, and threats against individuals abroad and in China, including Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong KongStrong
ReprisalsLithuaniaPrevent attempts to interpret national security laws as a justification to target human rights defenders, journalists, and other media workers outside the countryStrong
ReprisalsGermanyCease all reprisals against human rights defenders and civil society organizationsStrong
ReprisalsGreeceTake measures to prevent the harassment, intimidation and targeting of civil society members, journalists, human rights defenders and lawyersSomewhat strong
ReprisalsUnited KingdomCease the restriction of civil society and independent media, end forced repatriations, and stop targeting human rights defendersStrong
Expression/reprisalsLiechtensteinEnsure that human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers, including in Hong Kong, are not targeted for exercising their freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in line with international human rights lawSomewhat strong
PrivacyCzechiaEnd violating the freedoms and privacy of Chinese citizens via online censorship and surveillanceStrong
PrivacyMontenegroEnsure that mass surveillance, both online and offline, does not infringe on fundamental rights and freedoms of individualsSomewhat strong
PrivacyTunisiaPursue efforts to protect personal information and to protect the human dignity of citizensSomewhat weak
PrivacyCosta RicaEstablish norms based on international human rights standards on the use of personal biometric data for facial recognition systems and cyber policing systemsSomewhat strong
WomenChileStrengthen safeguards and protocols so that no woman is subjected to contraceptive interventions without her free and informed consentSomewhat strong
WomenIcelandEnd violations of reproductive rights and coercive enforcement of family planning policies, including those in XinjiangStrong
WomenMarshall IslandsImplement the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by putting an end to sexual and gender-based violence against women of ethnic minorities and allowing full enjoyment of their cultural rights and right to educationSomewhat strong
ExpressionEstoniaEnable unrestricted use of the Internet by ensuring the safe flow of information without violating the freedom of opinion and expressionStrong
ExpressionGermanyRevoke all laws restricting freedoms of expression and assemblyStrong
ExpressionItalyGuarantee freedom of opinion and expression, enhancing efforts to create an environment in which journalists, human rights defenders and NGOs can freely operate in accordance with international standards, removing obstacles to their access to information, mobility and interaction with civil societyAmbiguous
ExpressionLatviaCease the regulatory and judicial persecution of human rights defenders and journalists for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assemblySomewhat strong
ExpressionLithuaniaGuarantee the right of all citizens to opinion and expression without fear of reprisals and censorship in all regions, including Hong Kong, Tibet, and othersStrong
ExpressionNetherlandsEnd online censorship and end intimidation and surveillance of media workers and journalists, including in Hong KongStrong
ExpressionNorwayAllow freedom of expression in all its forms, as mandated by international human rights law and standardsStrong
ExpressionPolandRespect the rights to freedom of religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and culture, including for Tibetans, Uighurs and other minoritiesStrong
ExpressionRomaniaTake immediate measures aiming at ensuring freedom of association and expression, and create a safe environment for journalists and other media workersStrong
ExpressionSpainComply with international standards and recommendations on freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and on freedom of expression and freedom of the pressSomewhat strong
ExpressionSwedenTake urgent steps to ensure that all persons, including human rights defenders, journalists, persons belonging to LGBTIQ communities, and advocates for women’s enjoyment of human rights can fully exercise their freedom of expression and informationStrong
Enforced disappearance/arbitrary detentionCanadaEnd all forms of enforced disappearance targeting human rights defenders, ethnic minorities, and Falun Gong practitionersStrong
Enforced disappearance/arbitrary detentionGermanyRelease all human rights defenders from arbitrary detentionStrong
Enforced disappearance/arbitrary detentionUnited StatesRelease all arbitrarily detained individuals, many of whom were named by the UN Working GroupStrong
Enforced disappearance/arbitrary detentionIrelandImmediately release all arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society activistsStrong
Enforced disappearance/arbitrary detentionMontenegroInvestigate effectively allegations of human rights violations in camps and other detention facilities, including torture, sexual violence, forced labour and other mistreatmentStrong
Enforced disappearance/arbitrary detentionSwedenAbolish or reform the use of residential surveillance at a designated location and other forms of extrajudicial detention to ensure compliance with international human rights lawStrong
Enforced disappearance/arbitrary detentionAustraliaRepeal provisions of the Criminal Procedure Law allowing detention under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location and end enforced disappearances, consistent with the Committee against Torture recommendationStrong
Enforced disappearance/arbitrary detentionDenmarkRelease writers, bloggers, journalists, human rights defenders and others arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and guarantee this right, including in Hong KongStrong
GeneralUnited StatesEnd forced labour, marriage, birth control, sterilization, abortion, and family separation in XinjiangStrong
GeneralUnited StatesEnd torture, unjust residential detention, and persecution throughout ChinaStrong
GeneralEstoniaRespect and ensure the rights of persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, in particular in Xinjiang and TibetStrong
GeneralGermanyRespect the right of persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, including in Xinjiang and TibetSomewhat strong
GeneralSwedenTake urgent steps to fully respect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, especially in Xinjiang and TibetStrong
GeneralIsraelTake practical steps to improve the human rights situation in XinjiangAmbiguous
The recommendations below include language directly or indirectly referring to Uyghurs, but with the clear intention of supporting the Chinese government’s policies—we have included these recommendations for the sake of completeness.
LaborZimbabweContinue to provide employment support and assistance to all categories of workers without discrimination, effectively advance the reform of the training of industrial workers, and smoothen the career development channels of employees through continuous education and improvement of their technical skillsCounterproductive
Cultural rightsIranContinue to protect the cultural rights of ethnic minorities, and increase support for the development of ethnic minority areasCounterproductive
Cultural rightsPakistanIntensify further international cultural and religious exchanges, especially through more visits to Xinjiang and TibetCounterproductive
DevelopmentVenezuelaContinue to coordinate the work of maintaining stability and promoting the development of XinjiangCounterproductive
Religious freedomBelarusContinue to manage Xizang’s religious affairs according with the legislation of the People’s Republic of China and with respect to religious traditions, promote the enhancement of the temple management and continue to provide financial and other support to temples and places of pilgrimageCounterproductive
UnclearEritreaContinue to uphold the regional ethnic autonomy system and comprehensively promote ethnic unity and progressCounterproductive
Cultural rightsKyrgyzstanContinue to protect the right of minority ethnic groups to participate as equals in administering state and social affairs, protect the cultural rights of ethnic minorities, and increase support for the development of ethnic minority areasCounterproductive
Language rightsRussiaImprove gradually people’s sense and ability of using standard spoken and written Chinese language in XinjiangCounterproductive