China’s human rights record is criticized at the UN as it comes under unusual policy scrutiny.

The UK, the US and several other countries criticised China’s human rights record on Tuesday as the country was subjected to rare scrutiny of its policies at the United Nations.

The UK called on China to “cease 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”, while the US said China should “release all arbitrarily detained individuals” and cease the operation of “forcible assimilation policies including boarding schools in Tibet and Xinjiang”.

The UK also recommended that the national security law in Hong Kong be repealed and specifically called for the prosecution of the pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai to be dropped.

The recommendations were made as part of the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review, a mechanism by which the 193 UN member states review each others’ human rights records every five years.

Closeup of back of a man’s shaven head as he clutches it with his hands, in a gesture of despair.
Each country at the UN headquarters in Geneva was given 45 seconds to make recommendations based on China’s human rights records since 2018. In that period, huge protests against the tightening grip of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) in Hong Kong prompted the imposition of a national security law that critics say criminalises dissent, and there has been increased international scrutiny of the human rights situation in Xinjiang, as well as growing concern about transnational repression as activists in the US, the UK and other countries have been targeted by Chinese authorities or agents.

Responding to the recommendations, China’s UN ambassador, Chen Xu, said concerns were caused by “misunderstanding or misinformation”.

Chen said: “A few countries groundlessly accuse and smear China, based not on facts but on ideological bias and unfounded rumours and lies.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the first time China has been through the review process since the UN’s report on Xinjiang was published in August 2022. The long-delayed report, which was written by the outgoing human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet, found China was committing “serious human rights violations” against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Beijing described it as “disinformation”.

Several countries brought up China’s policies in Xinjiang during Tuesday’s meeting. The region, along with Tibet, has become a byword for Beijing’s repressive human rights policies, particularly towards religious and ethnic minorities.

Human rights activists said that the fact that several countries mentioned Tibet in this year’s review bucked a recent trend of the region not being spoken about on the international stage.

Many smaller countries, or countries that are economically dependent on China, praised China’s rights record, in particular its success at lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty since 2018.

Ethiopia said it “applauds China for improving the criminal litigation system”, while Iran said: “We appreciate the economic programmes implemented by the government of China with the aim of promoting social, cultural and economic rights.”

Bhutan, a small, landlocked country between India and China that has recently been warming its relationship with Beijing, said: “We commend the significant progress in poverty alleviation and the achievement of the poverty reduction target of the 2030 agenda ahead of schedule.”

Speaking after the UN session, Sophie Richardson, a former China director for Human Rights Watch, said: “We increasingly hear Chinese government rhetoric in the recommendations made by governments, I think indicating a level of control over the process or influence over the process, and that’s problematic.”

Zumretay Arkin, the spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress, criticised central Asian countries for failing to speak out against the abuse of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minorities in Xinjiang and said: “Muslim-majority countries have failed the Uyghurs.”

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