The 48th United Nations Human Rights Council Session Polarizes Member States Regarding China’s Involvement in Tibet
Written by Elle van der Cam
At the 48th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in September 2021, United Nations member states expressed opposing views on China’s involvement in the Tibetan region (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2021). While 26 nations condemned China for its human rights violations against its ethnic minorities, almost 100 countries from across the globe expressed their support for Chinese internal affairs and opposed external interference (IANS, 2021; Global Times, 2021). As a result, the Vice Foreign Minister of China also defended its nation regarding the main points presented at the UNHRC Session (CGTN, 2021).
These sessions aim to unite UN member states to promote international dialogue for upholding an international standard for human rights based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They promote dialogue regarding human rights violations across the member states of the United Nations, such as freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, or more generally regarding women’s rights or rights of racial and ethnic minorities. This particular session has been crucial for igniting international dialogue regarding China in the context of human rights and whether external interference is required.
Opposition to China
On the one hand, during the first week of the 48th session, delegates from 26 member states expressed their concerns on the human rights situation in Tibet. Member states from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States (US) and other nations from the European Union (EU) delivered a joint statement addressing China’s human rights violations in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong (IANS, 2021; Moller, 2021). Additionally, member states also individually expressed their concerns against China in the context of human rights in Tibet.
France, who delivered the joint statement, emphasized that China must comply with its obligations under national and international law to respect and protect human rights, including the rights of its ethnic minorities (Moller, 2021). The US strongly condemned human rights abuses regarding economic exploitation, systemic racism, and the destruction of cultural heritage by China (IANS, 2021). T This also comes after the Tibet Bureau Office in Geneva testified before the Swiss parliament regarding China’s routine destruction of the Tibetan region’s fragile environment, all in the name of development (Lhamo, 2021). The delegate from Denmark expressed the country being deeply concerned about human rights violations in Tibet (Moller, 2021). Simultaneously, the representative of the Netherlands specifically mentioned the concerns of restrictions on the press and the freedom of religion and belief in Tibet (Lhamo, 2021). Meanwhile, Sweden voiced its concern on China’s targeting of individuals from minorities, human rights defenders, and media workers, including in Tibet. The United Kingdom, Finland and Norway also voiced their concerns against China’s activities in Tibet and the well-being of the Tibetan people (Moller, 2021).
In addition, thousands of protesters gathered outside the UNHRC Session in Geneva to appeal to the UN High Commissioner to hold China accountable for human rights violations (Kumar, 2021). The Tibetan Community of Switzerland and Lichtenstein (TCSL) organized a peace march on the 24th of September 2021, where they held the Tibetan national flag and placards while chanting slogans against Chinese oppression in Tibet (Kumar, 2021).
Supporters of China
On the other hand, during the 48th session, almost 100 countries showed support and understanding to China in the context of human rights at the UNHRC Session. First, the largest support was shown when Pakistan delivered a joint statement on behalf of 65 countries, going against interference in China’s internal affairs (Global Times, 2021). The statement stressed the necessity to respect the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of member states and that non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states represents basic norms in international relations. As such, the statement stressed that issues related to human rights in Tibet were China’s internal affairs and that external forces should not interfere. They also referenced the purpose and principles of the Charter of the United Nations in their argument, claiming that the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity should be respected in this case (Global Times, 2021). They argued for the right of the people in each state to independently choose the path for human rights development under national conditions and to treat all human rights with the same emphasis. The joint statement called on all states to uphold multilateralism, solidarity and collaboration, while also promoting and protecting human rights through constructive dialogue and cooperation rather than intervention (Global Times, 2021).
Secondly, in addition to this joint statement, another six countries, all being member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, also supported China’s position (Global Times, 2021). Furthermore, another twenty countries expressed their support and understanding to China in national statements and even praised China’s human rights achievements. For example, the representative of Venezuela recognized the Chinese government’s efforts to eradicate poverty and promote the well-being of ethnic groups in China, while also warning that coercive measures by external forces would have serious negative impacts on ethnic minorities (Global Times, 2021b). The representative from North Korea also emphasized that international bodies must respect national sovereignty and territorial integrity and thus must refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other nations (Global Times, 2021b). Tanzania, in a similar light, applauded China’s progress in poverty reduction and improving the living standards of millions across China, marking an important contribution to global efforts of poverty alleviation (Global Times, 2021b). In general, these nations praised China for its conscious efforts against poverty and underlined their opinions against external intervention in China’s internal affairs.
In response to this dialogue, China’s Vice Foreign Minister, Ma Zhaoxu, has commented in an interview that China participates in these discussions to maintain international justice and to oppose any interference in the internal affairs of other nations in the pretext of human rights (CGTN, 2021). In the interview, Ma Zhaoxu highlighted China’s efforts and important steps in poverty alleviation under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, which threatened people’s health and lives while worsening social inequalities and racial discrimination. China spoke of the hypocrisy of Western nations as they were making major democratic steps towards human rights and poverty alleviation. Ma Zhaoxu stressed that external military interference and unilateral sanctions would weaken countries’ ability to respond to the pandemic and restore national economies (CGTN, 2021). As such, its argument centered that external intervention would worsen the situation of ethnic minorities in China and warned against it.
The 48th UNHRC Session showed polarizing opinions this year regarding China’s involvement in Tibet and other ethnic minorities, and thus did not conclude on whether to act. With those supporting China on one hand and those opposing China on the other, the fate of the Tibetan population remains unclear. What is certain is that this session started an important dialogue by shedding light on how nations perceive the treatment of ethnic minorities in China and will determine the path of more dialogue regarding the topic. External intervention or pressure is very delicate and could change the course of Tibetan lives, for the worse or better. As such, it is essential to follow future discussions as the lives of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities are at stake. Not to mention the future of the universal standard of human rights is also in peril.
CGTN. (2021). China advocates for human rights protection at 48th UNHRC session. Retrieved 4 October 2021 from, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2021-09-26/China-advocates-for-human-rights-protection-at-48th-UNHRC-session-13RNtBBGRRS/index.html
Global Times. (2021). 65 countries express opposition to interference in China’s internal affairs at UN Human Rights Council. Retrieved 4 October 2021 from, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1235032.shtml
Global Times. (2021b). Countries praise China’s poverty reduction, human rights improvement. Retrieved 4 October 2021 from, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202109/1234458.shtml
IANS. (2021). Respect Human Rights in Tibet: UN to China. Retrieved 4 October 2021 from,
Kumar, A. (2021). Tibetans Protest Outside UNHCR Office to Hold China Accountable for Human Rights Violation. Retrieved 4 October 2021 from, https://www.republicworld.com/world-news/europe/tibetans-protest-outside-unhcr-office-to-hold-china-accountable-for-human-rights-violation.html
Lhamo, K. (2021). UN member states condemn China for human rights abuses in Tibet. Retrieved 4 October 2021 from, http://www.phayul.com/2021/09/29/46179/
Moller, G. (2021). UN members call on China to respect human rights in Tibet. Retrieved 4 October from, https://scandasia.com/un-members-call-on-china-to-respect-human-rights-in-tibet/
United Nations Human Rights Council. (2021). Sessions. Retrieved 4 October 2021 from, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/Sessions.aspx
 The UNHRC is a United Nations body with the mission to promote and protect human rights across the globe. The Council holds three regular sessions annually, usually in March, June, and September, totaling at least ten weeks each year, and are arguably the most influential dialogues regarding human rights on a global scale.
 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, sets out fundamental human rights to be universally protected.
 Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
 Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change and manifest these as the individual pleases.
 The Charter of the United Nations is the founding document of the UN, signed in 1945. It is regarded as an international treaty which UN member states are bound to. It codifies the major principles of international relations from sovereign equality of States to the prohibition of use of force in international relations.
 The Gulf Cooperation Council is a regional, intergovernmental political and economic union that consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
August 13, 2021