Twenty-seven nations gathering at a side event at the United Nations General Assembly last week in New York ignored China’s threats and went ahead with denouncing the superpower over its ongoing human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Beijing, wielding its “resolute opposition” against “notorious anti-China organizations obsessed with fabricating lies and spreading malicious disinformation about Xinjiang with no respect for truth,” sent a strongly-worded warning to all member states on September 14, from its UN mission, slamming the side event as a “plot to undermine Xinjiang’s stability and disrupt China’s peaceful development,” and urging them not to attend.
The forum, organized by the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, highlighted global community inaction following the damning UN-commissioned report released last August 31, 2023, describing atrocities committed against the Xinjiang’s Turkic community as “constituting international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.
It condemned the international community, largely in the superpower’s debt, financially or strategically that has failed to stand up against the CCP as it continues its relentless campaign of genocide against its largely Muslim so-called minority population on its far northwestern flank.
Chairing the meeting, Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur human rights lawyer whose brother Ekpar Asat disappeared following his detention in 2016, said of the atrocities, “China has robbed us of months and years of being with our loved ones through mass detention, imprisonment, lengthy sentences, and separation.”
“The magnitude of pain and trauma China has inflicted upon families like mine [and] upon the Uyghur community as a whole is immeasurable and guaranteed to reverberate for generations to come.”
In her keynote remarks, Ambassador Beth Van Schaack, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, Office of Global Criminal Justice, United States, stressed the contents of the UN report should have been the “beginning” and “not the end” of probes into the persecution of Uyghurs in their homeland.
Applauding efforts to push for China’s international accountability she said human rights violations against Uyghurs in Xinjiang were ongoing; the 15,000 extrajudicial prison terms of between 5 years to life, arbitrary arrests, the confiscation of documents, restricted movement, mass surveillance, compulsory sterilization, and the widespread enforced labor program affecting hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been billeted across China to make products for western markets.
“These are matters of grave concern,” she said, “we must not stand idly by or look away.”
Peter Loeffelhardt, German Foreign Office’s director for Asia and the Pacific, condemned attitudes that labelled human rights as separate from development. “These are inalienable,” he said. China is committing “serious human rights violations”, in direct violation of international laws it has signed up to. “It has an obligation to uphold these,” he said. “We must not meet China’s actions with silence.”
Belén Martinez Carbonell, Managing Director for Multilateral Affairs, European External Action Service (EEAS), said that Uyghur forced labor was a “very serious concern,” and that the EU was in the process of devising legislating against it. “We want to eradicate forced labor from the supply chains,” she said.
Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International stressed that although Xinjiang had “faded from the headlines” the situation had not shifted in essence. “We still say that crimes against humanity have been committed in Xinjiang”, she said. “We are still seeing a multiplication of cases of arbitrary detention and harsher sentences.”
Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, was scathing of the China Mission warning letter. “China must have a lot to hide,” she said, dismayed that Xi Jinping during his recent visit to Xinjiang indicated life was going to get more difficult for those in the Uyghur region.
“He is trying to normalize his crimes,” she said.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has ensured a significant majority of nations are loath to criticize the Chinese state, loaded down as they are with debt to the superpower. The UK’s “Guardian” newspaper reported in March 2023 that China had spent $240 billion on Belt and Road bailouts from 2008-2021.
According to the strongly-worded injunction against attending the side meeting, at least 100 of the 193 nations present at the Assembly supported China and rejected “interference in its internal affairs.” At least 155 countries globally have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, intended to open new land and sea routes for international trade around the world and benefitting China in the process; they too might be loath to join a chorus of disapproval of their major trading partner.
Growing numbers of large multinational companies are being flagged up as complicit in Uyghur forced labor abuses thanks to the strenuous efforts of human rights groups in the West. It will be increasingly difficult for them to hide, said panel members who urged reluctant governments to legislate and the international community to join forces and stand up to China.
Last year’s UN Human Rights Council ballot to confront China with its abuses was voted down by 17 to 19. Sophie Richardson, despite her disappointment, was upbeat. “We have never got that close before to holding China to account,” she said. “The challenge is—it’s winnable. Let’s get out and do some work to make it happen.”
Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged for moral consistency in the UN system. “There is utter silence on some issues but uproar on others,” he said. “This unleashes a poison to render the international system very weak.” He wanted to see the courage of “speaking out when no one else dares to say it.”
“This is how things will improve. We have no malice. We just want the situation for Uyghurs to improve. We’re not anti-China. We’re pro the people of China who have been removed from access to their basic human rights,” he said.