It was the image China wanted from its October 2023 Belt and Road Forum: a smiling António Guterres shaking hands with Xi Jinping in front of the flags of the United Nations and the People’s Republic of China. For the Uyghur people, the sight of the secretary-general of the United Nations paying his respects to the perpetrator of the Uyghur genocide shows just how selective Guterres has been in confronting human rights atrocities. The secretary-general has taken no steps to ensure the U.N. holds China to account for crimes against humanity.
#XiGuests President Xi Jinping met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday in Beijing.
Xi said China is willing to work with the UN to promote high-quality Belt and Road cooperation to contribute to world peace and development.
A review of the past decade of the… pic.twitter.com/dvaSSVlrNx
— Xi's Moments (@XisMoments) October 18, 2023
On October 18, the same day Guterres called Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative an “historic opportunity,” a group of 51 countries at the United Nations had a different message for Beijing. A statement, read by the United Kingdom on behalf of the group, noted, “Members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang continue to suffer serious violations of their human rights by the authorities of the People’s Republic of China.” The statement listed a series of shocking human rights violations ranging from large-scale arbitrary detention to torture; sexual and gender-based violence to enforced disappearances; and family separations to forced labor.
These abuses were also highlighted in a United Nations report, researched and written by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In August 2022, the report concluded China’s actions in the Uyghur region “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The U.K.-led statement ended with a recommendation that China “engage constructively with the OHCHR.”
I will go one step further. António Guterres must pressure China to end its genocide of the Uyghurs.
I am not the first to express my frustration with the secretary-general of the United Nations. Uyghur victims, U.S. Senators, and NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have all voiced their concern at the way Guterres has dragged his feet on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
And it is not just the OHCHR report that the secretary-general has avoided. In March 2021, 16 U.N. experts raised “serious concerns” about 150 companies connected to detention and forced labor of Uyghurs. Special rapporteurs also issued statements in September 2022 and September 2023 expressing “grave” and “profound” concerns about the world turning a blind eye to conditions in Xinjiang. In November 2022, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) called on China to investigate allegations of “torture, ill-treatment, sexual violence, forced labor, enforced disappearances and deaths in custody.”
Certainly, the secretary-general has a full plate. For years, he has spoken out forcefully about the horrors imposed upon innocent civilians around the globe from Rakhine State in Myanmar to Ukraine. These crises deserve his attention and need the cooperation of the international community in working toward immediate and just resolutions.
So it is even more puzzling as to why Guterres has not spoken with such passion about the nightmare conditions for Uyghurs. An answer might be found in his response to the 2022 OHCHR report. Instead of directly relaying his thoughts, we merely learned from U.N. Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric that the secretary-general had read the report, which “clearly identifies serious human rights violations in the Xinjiang region of China.”
However, and most tellingly, Dujarric added that Guterres “values the system-wide cooperation between China and the United Nations on a whole host of issues. China is a very valuable partner, and we very much hope that that cooperation will continue.”
So the secretary-general’s main response to crimes of humanity against the Uyghur people was to continue cooperation with China as a “valuable partner.” Power politics is a cynical and destructive process.
António Guterres needs to act, this is clear. Uyghurs, as much as any of the world’s oppressed peoples, deserve to live in freedom. Widespread, state-sanctioned forced labor should mobilize the International Labor Organization (ILO). Extensive documentation of acts of genocide and crimes against humanity should set off alarm bells for the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention and indeed the U.N. Security Council.
Beyond these U.N. processes, the secretary-general should stop the political games, meet his mandate, and speak out with conviction against the genocide of the Uyghurs. At the very least, he should understand that photo ops with genocidaires discredit his legacy, his office, and the United Nations as an agent of world peace.