The U.K. and Germany have led a group of 39 member states in condemning China’s treatment of Uyghurs and imposition of harsh security measures in Hong Kong at the U.N. General Assembly, signaling increasing opposition to Beijing’s policies from the international community.
In a joint statement issued late on Tuesday to the General Assembly’s human rights committee, the two nations—as well as the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, and several members of the European Union—slammed China for its persecution of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The countries also expressed concern over provisions in the recently passed Hong Kong National Security Law they said do not conform to China’s international legal obligations.
Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen told the committee that the 39 member states had seen “an increasing number of reports of gross human rights violations” in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have arbitrarily detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other minority Muslims in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017.
The countries pointed to “severe restrictions” on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association and expression, as well as on Uyghur culture. They also noted widespread surveillance that “disproportionally continues to target Uyghurs and other minorities,” as more reports emerge of forced labor and forced birth control, including sterilization.
“We call on China to allow immediate, meaningful, and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office, and relevant special procedure mandate holders,” the statement said.
The 39 member states urged China to implement recommendations made in August 2018 by the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), including by refraining from the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other minorities, while also calling on all countries to respect the principle of non-refoulement of those who have fled repression in the XUAR.
They insisted that China also respect human rights in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), where Tibetans have similarly seen their freedoms eroded under Beijing’s rule and are facing forced labor and other policies seen in the XUAR.
The countries also expressed “deep concern” about elements of the July 1 Hong Kong National Security Law, which outlaws words and deeds deemed by the authorities to constitute separatism, subversion or terrorism, or collusion with a foreign power. Under the law, certain cases can be transferred for prosecution to the Chinese mainland.
They said authorities must guarantee the rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Joint Declaration signed between London and Beijing ahead of the handover of Hong Kong from the U.K. to China in 1997, including freedoms of speech, the press and assembly.
“We also call on China to uphold autonomy, rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, and to respect the independence of the Hong Kong judiciary,” the countries said.
Tuesday’s condemnation marked a significant increase in the number of countries willing to stand up to China’s threats of cutting off trade with nations that support such statements. A similar resolution last year received only 23 backers.
The shift in rights diplomacy comes as public opinion in a number of countries has soured on China.
A survey published Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that more than two-thirds of people in 14 major countries expressed no confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping to pursue a constructive foreign policy. One of the most widely cited reasons was China’s lack of transparency in its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which originated in its central city of Hubei late last year.
While China had enjoyed an overwhelming positive public image in the EU in recent years, the country is increasingly being viewed with suspicion about its motives in the region. Several key European countries, including Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, were willing to support a resolution condemning China for the first time this year.
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, applauded Tuesday’s statement, which he said “proves the international community stands with us and we’re not alone.”
“This also proves the international community is being daily persuaded by our righteous cause,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service. “As a result, many nations are taking up our issue.”
Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun sought to paint the vote as part of a bid by the Trump administration to draw attention away from its own domestic problems that include racial inequality and a failed response to the pandemic that has led to more than 210,000 deaths in the U.S.
“I would like to say to the U.S. that blaming China cannot cover up your poor human rights records,” Zhang said.
“Before accusing others, you’d better take a good look in the mirror at yourself. In fact: It is the U.S. that should protect the basic rights of its people.”
China issued a statement defending its policies in the XUAR as part of an effective strategy against the “threats of terrorism and extremism,” and secured support from 45 other countries to back it.
While Turkey—a nation that is home to more than 50,000 Uyghurs who fled there to escape persecution in China and whose people share cultural and linguistic affinities with the Turkic ethnic group—did not add its name to Tuesday’s resolution, its mission to the U.N. issued a statement in which it said the rights situation in the XUAR “remains a cause of concern” and that the CERD’s recommendations “are still valid today and need to be acted on.”
“While respecting China’s territorial integrity, Turkey’s expectation, which is well known by the international community, as well as by the Chinese authorities, is that Uyghur Turks and other Muslim minorities live in peace and prosperity as equal citizens of China, and that their cultural and religious identities are respected and guaranteed,” the mission said.
“As a country having ethnic, religious and cultural ties with the Uyghur Turks, we have been particularly alarmed by the recently published reports and news on alleged human rights practices against Uyghur Turks and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.”
Turkey’s mission echoed a call for “a meaningful, full-fledged, and unrestricted visit of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to Xinjiang” and urged China to act in a transparent manner on the issue.
In February 2019, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a rare statement of criticism of China by a majority Muslim nation, demanding that authorities close the internment camps in the XUAR.
During a trip to China in July last year, however, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged security cooperation with Beijing and said that residents of the XUAR live happy and prosperous lives under Beijing’s rule, according to Chinese state television.
A 2017 extradition treaty signed between Beijing and Ankara—while not ratified—was submitted by Erdogan for consideration a year ago to the Grand National Assembly (TBMM). Observers fear it specifically targets Uyghurs in the majority Muslim nation for forced repatriation to China.
The Turkish government had long refused to extradite or deport Uyghurs back to China, but that changed in June last year—two months after the treaty was submitted to parliament—when Turkey sent several home via Tajikistan, including a woman named Zinnetgul Tursun along with her two toddler daughters.
A month later, Tursun’s sister—who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia—learned from her mother in the XUAR that her sibling had “disappeared” and that the family had no information about what had happened to her, before warning her to end further communication.
In Washington on Wednesday, Sen. Rick Scott called on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to pass his resolution calling on the International Olympic Committee to remove the 2022 Winter Games from Beijing, citing “gross human rights violations” against Uyghurs.
Scott’s proposal follows the House of Representatives passage of two pieces of legislation last month aimed at blocking the import of products made by forced labor in the XUAR.
“As long as General Secretary Xi [Jinping] continues on this indefensible course, Communist China should absolutely not be rewarded with the 2022 Olympic Games,” Scott wrote in a letter to the senate committee.
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.