The UN Human Rights Council on Thursday voted against holding a debate on alleged widespread abuses in China's Xinjiang region after intense lobbying by Beijing.
Argentina refrained from weighing in on the decision, a major setback to the Council’s coalition of Western members.
The United States and its allies last month presented the first draft decision targeting China to the UN's top rights body, seeking as a bare minimum a discussion on the secretive activities of the Chinese Communist Party in the nation’s westernmost province.
In what was a dramatic and especially close decision, countries on the 47-member Council in Geneva landed 19-17 against holding the debate, with 11 nations abstaining.
The move came after former UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet released her long-delayed Xinjiang report, citing possible crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region.
Amnesty International branded the vote farcical, while Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it betrayed abuse victims.
"The United States condemns today's vote preventing a discussion about Xinjiang," US ambassador to the Council Michele Taylor tweeted, adding that the body’s inaction "shamefully suggests some countries are free from scrutiny and allowed to violate human rights with impunity."
Argentina holds back
The government of Alberto Fernández chose to abstain from voting on the debate, an initiative that would have been overseen by the Council’s Argentine president, Federico Villegas.
According to a government source cited by the Noticias Argentinas agency, Argentina chose to abstain because such proceedings would have taken place “without the consent of China, which breaks the foundation of cooperation among the members of the Council, and politicises the mechanism."
In addition, the source noted that most of the abstaining countries expressed a similar attitude, and that with the exception of Paraguay and Honduras, the rest of Latin America did not support the American-authored resolution.
In adopting a neutral posture, the Fernández administration sought to make it clear that "they are not willing to politicise the UN Human Rights Council or transform it into an area of dispute between powers,” said the source.
China's Ambassador to the UN body, Chen Xu, said the push to discuss the issue was "taking advantage" of the United Nations "to interfere in China's internal affairs."
"The draft decision is not pro-human rights but for political manipulation," he told the council. "Today China is targeted; tomorrow any other developing country could be targeted."
The American-led draft decision was forwarded by Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Turkey, among others.
One Western diplomat stressed that regardless of the outcome, "the number one objective has been fulfilled" in putting Xinjiang in the spotlight.
Bachelet's report, published minutes before her term ended on August 31, highlighted "credible" allegations of widespread torture, arbitrary detention and violations of religious and reproductive rights.
Her findings brought UN endorsement to long-running allegations that Beijing detained more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims, and that it forcibly sterilised women.
Beijing vehemently rejected the charges, insisting that it is running vocational training centres in the region to counter extremism.
Amnesty secretary general Agnes Callamard said Thursday's vote was a "dismaying result that puts the UN's main human rights body in the farcical position of ignoring the findings of the UN's own human rights office".
"For council member states to vote against even discussing a situation where the UN itself says crimes against humanity may have occurred makes a mockery of everything the Human Rights Council is supposed to stand for."
HRW's China director Sophie Richardson called it an "abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of Uyghur victims".
The International Service for Human Rights' China advocate Raphael Viana David said: "Council members sent today a dreadful message: China remains so far untouchable."
ISHR executive director Phil Lynch said it was "shameful" that "Muslim countries... have overwhelmingly failed to even support a UN discussion on rights abuses against Uyghurs."
Indonesian ambassador Febrian Ruddyard said, "As the world's largest Muslim country and a vibrant democracy, we cannot close our eyes to the plight of our Muslim brothers and sisters".
But, as China did not consent, a discussion "will not yield meaningful progress", hence Indonesia voted 'no'.
The sentiment was echoed by Qatari ambassador Hend Al-Muftah.
China has since launched an all-out offensive to dismiss Bachelet's report.
African countries, where China is the leading creditor after making massive infrastructure investments, faced particularly heavy lobbying, observers said.
In the end, only Somalia voted 'yes' out of 13 countries.
Britain's ambassador Simon Manley said the close result nonetheless showed Beijing that "a significant number of countries will not be silenced when it comes to egregious human rights violations", whoever the perpetrator.
The nations voting against a debate were Bolivia, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Gabon, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Namibia, Nepal, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.
Armenia, Benin, Brazil, Gambia, India, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico and Ukraine all joined Argentina in abstention.