Dozens of countries question China at UN over Xinjiang ‘abuses’

In a joint statement, 47 countries voice concern at treatment of ethnic minority Uighurs in far western region.

Police officers patrol in the old city in Kashgar, Xinjiang in the Uighur Autonomous Region in China [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

Dozens of countries have voiced concern about alleged abuses in China’s far western Xinjiang region, and demanded that the United Nations rights chief publish a long-delayed report on the situation there.

“We continue to be gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” Paul Bekkers, the Dutch ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday.

Delivering a joint statement on behalf of 47 countries, Bekkers pointed to a number of “credible reports” indicating that more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been arbitrarily detained. Beijing has admitted that there are camps but that they are “vocational skills training centres” and necessary to tackle “extremism”.

“There are reports of ongoing widespread surveillance, discrimination against Uighurs and other persons belonging to minorities,” he said.

The joint statement also voiced concern about “reports of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilisation, sexual and gender-based violence, forced labour, and forced separation of children from their parents by authorities”.

The concerned countries, Bekkers said, “repeat our call on China to urgently address these concerns”, and to “end the arbitrary detention of Muslim Uighurs and persons belonging to other minorities”.

The group also called on Beijing to provide UN investigators and experts “meaningful and unfettered access” to independently observe the situation on the ground in Xinjiang.

After months demanding “unfettered access” to Xinjiang, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet finally visited China last month – the first visit by a UN rights chief to the country in 17 years.

But she faced harsh criticism for not speaking up more forcefully against China’s alleged abuses prior to and during the trip, which is believed to have been heavily controlled by Chinese authorities.

In Tuesday’s joint statement, the countries asked for “more detailed observations, including on the restrictions the Chinese authorities imposed on the visit” by Bachelet.

‘Political manipulation’

China’s Ambassador Chen Xu reacted angrily to the joint statement, condemning the Netherlands and the other signatories for spreading what it said were “lies and rumours to attack China”.

“We categorically reject these allegations,” he said, accusing the countries behind the statement of “hypocrisy” and “attempts to engage in political manipulation”.

He hailed Bachelet’s visit, insisting it had “enhanced her understanding of China’s path of human rights development”.

The UN rights chief has faced growing pressure to release her long-delayed report on Xinjiang, which diplomats say has been ready for months.

Bachelet, who announced on Monday that she will not be seeking a second term, has promised that the report would be published before she steps down on August 31.

Tuesday’s joint statement urged the report’s “prompt release”, and asked Bachelet to provide “further information on the timeline”.

Academics specialising in Xinjiang, who called on the UN to investigate the camps back in 2018, have also criticised Bachelet over her visit to China, and urged her to publish the report as soon as possible.

“While we disagree on some questions of why Beijing is enacting its atrocities in Xinjiang, we are unanimous in our understanding of what it is that the Chinese state is doing on the ground,” the 40 academics said in open letter published last week.

It continued: “This extraordinary consensus is a result of the unprecedented quantity of evidence that the Chinese state has provided in its own documents, some of them leaked but most of them publicly released on the Chinese internet. This evidence, complemented by survivor testimonies and satellite imagery, offers a detailed picture of what can be credibly called a genocidal program.”

watchtowers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp in Xinjiang
Watchtowers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp for the mostly Muslim Uighurs on the outskirts of Hotan, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region [File: Greg Baker/AFP] 

Chen, meanwhile, decried the “hyped-up so-called report on Xinjiang”, pointing out that it had not been ordered by the UN’s rights council, alleging it violated Bachelet’s mandate and “should not be published at all”.

While a long line of countries that took the floor individually on Tuesday echoed the criticisms in the joint statement, some also came to China’s defence, with Belarus, Cuba and North Korea also insisting the report should not be published.

Venezuela’s Ambassador Hector Constant Rosales agreed and claimed there was “a sustained campaign of fake news against Xinjiang and China”.

The United Nations first revealed the detention of millions of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang in late 2018, with Amnesty International later accusing Beijing of creating a “dystopian hellscape” in the region.

China says the programme has been wound down.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies