China pressured Ukraine into withdrawing its support for a call for more scrutiny of human rights in China’s Xinjiang region by threatening to withhold Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines destined for Ukraine unless it did so, diplomats said on Friday.
Ukraine briefly joined a statement by more than 40 countries, presented by Canada at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday, urging China to allow independent observers immediate access to Xinjiang.
Human rights groups have accused Beijing of mistreating Muslim Uighurs and others in the region.
On Thursday, Ukraine pulled its name off the list of supporting states after Chinese authorities told Kiev that they would block a planned shipment of at least 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Ukraine unless it did so, diplomats from two Western countries said.
The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Ukraine has agreed to purchase 1.9 million doses of the CoronaVac vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech. As of early last month, Ukraine had received 1.2 million doses, Ukranian Minister of Healthcare Maxim Stepanov said.
In the past, China’s government has been no stranger to pressuring other countries in Geneva diplomatic circles or in national capitals to line up behind its statements or avoid backing statements that criticize, question or seek scrutiny of human rights in the country.
However, the alleged pressure would mark an escalation of recent intense efforts by Beijing to push back against criticism of its rights record, this time by potentially jeopardizing people’s health — even lives — as a way to minimize international attention, the diplomats said.
One of the Western diplomats called it a sign of “bare-knuckles” diplomacy by China.
The other diplomat cited “reports of significant pressure in Kiev,” adding that “last night the delegation told us they needed to pull out.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a spokesman for the Chinese diplomatic mission in Geneva did not immediately respond to e-mails seeking comment.
Ukrainian authorities did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.
Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN Leslie Norton on Tuesday said in a statement that “credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.”
Norton’s statement was initially backed by 41 countries and is supported by 44. Ukraine was briefly country No. 45.
Norton also pointed to “reports of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents by authorities” in China.
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