GENEVA - China attacked a report issued by the UN rights office (OHCHR) on alleged abuses in Xinjiang on Tuesday and read out a statement backed by around 20 other countries criticising the UN body for releasing it and saying it had no right to do so.
But initial support for Beijing's so-called joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council was thinner than some observers had expected - a fact that might embolden China's critics.
The Aug 31 report, which China had asked the UN not to publish, stipulated that "serious human rights violations have been committed" and said the detention of Uighurs and other Muslims in China's Xinjiang region may constitute crimes against humanity. China vigorously denies any abuse.
Democracies are now mulling a possible historic motion against China including a possible investigative mechanism at an ongoing meeting of the Geneva council as a result, diplomats told Reuters.
The United States, Canada and the European Union were among those welcoming the Xinjiang findings and expressing concern in the council's Tuesday session where countries are discussing the report for the first time.
But Mr Chen Xu, China's ambassador, rejected it as an erroneous "smear", saying it was based on lies.
"We are deeply concerned that the OHCHR, without the authorisation of the Human Rights Council, and the consent of the country concerned, released the so-called assessment on Xinjiang, China...," he said in a separate joint statement.
A UN council official said that so far 21 countries had signed that statement including Egypt and Pakistan.
However, a Reuters tally showed that only seven of those that sided with China currently have a vote at the 47-member Council where resolutions need a majority to pass.
"They won't be happy with that," said one diplomat.
Countries that have previously voiced support for China on human rights issues who were not on the current list included Nepal, Nigeria, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates although they could join later as the list remains open.
"The UN report has made it hard for many countries, in particular Muslim ones, to stay silent..." said Raphael Viana David from the International Service for Human Rights.
There has been heavy campaigning on the part of both China and Western countries over the Xinjiang report, diplomats said.
"Everybody has been lobbied," said one diplomat, who said his country would not support either side.
Opening another front, the European Union said Wednesday it would ban products made from forced labour.
The bloc’s plan does not mention China specifically, but China has faced criticisms that Uighurs are being forced into slave labour.
“This proposal will make a real difference in tackling modern-day slavery, which affects millions of people around the globe,” said the EU’s trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis.
The EU proposal risks eliciting a strong reaction from Beijing if seen as linked to allegations of rights violations against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. REUTERS