More than 40 countries urged China on Tuesday to allow the United Nations human rights chief immediate access to its far western region of Xinjiang to investigate reports that more than a million mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs have been detained – some subjected to torture or forced labour – prompting a furious response from China.
“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” Canada’s ambassador, Leslie Norton said.
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The statement at the Human Rights Council in Geneva was backed by Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States, among others.
Beijing must allow UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and other independent observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang, and end the “arbitrary detention” of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, it said.
“Credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uighurs and members of other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uyghur culture,” the statement said.
China has denied mistreating the Uighurs, once a majority in their ancestral homeland until waves of ethnic Han Chinese began to migrate there with the support of the state. Beijing has denied all allegations of abuse of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims and said the camps are vocational skills training centres necessary to combat “religious extremism”.
Bachelet told the council on Monday that she hoped to agree on terms for a visit this year to China, including Xinjiang, to examine reports of serious violations against Muslim Uighurs. Her office has been negotiating access since September 2018.
The widely anticipated statement, which had been in the pipeline for several days, “sends a crucial message to China’s authorities that they are not above international scrutiny”, said Agnes Callamard, head of the rights group Amnesty International.
But countries “must now move beyond handwringing and take real action”, she added.
Aware that the statement was coming, China had responded even before it was delivered, targeting Canada, which has accused China of “hostage diplomacy” for its detention of two Canadians in December 2018.
Beijing’s representative read out a statement on behalf of a group of countries that said they were “deeply concerned about serious human rights violations against the indigenous people in Canada”.
Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela were among the co-signatories, according to the United Nations.
“Historically, Canada robbed the indigenous people of their land, killed them, and eradicated their culture,” the statement said.
It referenced the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in western Canada – one of many boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
“We call for a thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against the indigenous people, especially children,” the statement said.
The Canadian-led joint statement also condemned the broadly-worded National Security Law, which China imposed on Hong Kong a year ago following months of protests in 2019.
The law criminalises what China deems secession, terrorism, subversion and collusion with foreign forces. The first trials are due to begin this week of people arrested under the legislation.
“We continue to be deeply concerned about the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong under the National Security Law and about the human rights situation in Tibet,” it said.
The representative of Belarus read another joint statement on behalf of 64 countries, supporting China and stressing that Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet were China’s internal affairs.
In Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who later condemned what he called “the systemic abuse and human rights violations” in Xinjiang, said Canada had acknowledged and was seeking to make amends for wrongs committed against its Indigenous peoples.
A Canadian truth and reconciliation commission had worked from 2008 to 2015 to address the mistreatment of the Indigenous population, although it has yet to act on most of the recommendations.
“Where is China’s truth and reconciliation commission? Where is their truth? Where is the openness that Canada has always shown and the responsibility that Canada has taken for the terrible mistakes of the past?” Trudeau asked.
“The journey of reconciliation is a long one, but it is a journey we are on. China is not recognising even that there is a problem.
“That is a pretty fundamental difference and that is why Canadians and people from around the world are speaking up for people like the Uighurs who find themselves voiceless, faced with a government that will not recognize what’s happening to them.”