The United States and 22 other countries at the United Nations pushed China on Tuesday to stop detaining ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims, prompting China’s UN envoy to warn it was not “helpful” for ongoing trade talks between Beijing and Washington.
China has been widely condemned for setting up complexes in remote Xinjiang that it describes as “vocational training centres”. The UN says at least one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims have been jailed.
Britain’s UN Ambassador Karen Pierce delivered a joint statement to the 193-member UN General Assembly’s human rights committee on behalf of 23 states including the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.
“We call on the Chinese government to uphold its national laws and international obligations and commitments to respect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China,” Pierce said.
The group of states pushed China to urgently implement recommendations by independent UN experts on the situation in Xinjiang, “including by refraining from the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and members of other Muslim communities.”
They also called on countries not to send refugees or asylum seekers back if there was a risk of persecution, Pierce said.
“It’s hard to imagine that on the one hand you are trying to seek to have a trade deal, on the other hand you are making use of any issues, especially human rights issues, to blame the others,” China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun told reporters.
While there had been “progress” in trade talks, Zhang noted the US criticism of China’s actions in Xinjiang.
“I do not think it’s helpful for having a good solution to the issue of trade talks,” he said.
US and Chinese negotiators are working to complete the text of an interim trade agreement for US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to sign at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chile that starts on November 16.
A US administration official said on Tuesday it might not be completed in time for signing in Chile, but that did not mean the accord was falling apart.
When asked if the statement criticising China could affect trade talks, US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft said: “I would be standing here regardless if it was China or wherever it is, wherever there are human rights abuses we would be here in defence of those that are suffering.”
Zhang described the accusations against Beijing as baseless and a “gross interference in China’s internal affairs and deliberate provocation.”
Separately, Belarus UN Ambassador Valentin Rybakov addressed the General Assembly rights committee on behalf of 54 countries, including China, Pakistan, Russia, Egypt, Bolivia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Serbia.
He praised Beijing’s respect and protection of rights while dealing with counterterrorism and de-radicalisation in Xinjiang and its commitment to openness and transparency by inviting diplomats, journalists and officials to the region.
“Now safety and security have returned to Xinjiang and fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded,” Rybakov said. “We commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.”
The statements follow a similar move at the UN Human Rights Council in July when 22 states – including the US and Britain – wrote a letter calling on China to halt its mass detentions. In response, Saudi Arabia, Russia and more than 30 other countries wrote a rival letter that commended China’s rights record.
Asked by Reuters last month if US criticism of China’s policies on Xinjiang and Hong Kong political protests could affect trade talks, China’s state councillor and foreign minister, Wang Yi, said: “We hope trade talks can have a loose and good foreign environment.”
China met some foreign envoys before the latest session of the UN General Assembly in New York, which began last month.
Chinese human rights academics also defended Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong during a briefing with reporters at China’s UN mission in New York last week.
The US led more than 30 countries at an event on the sidelines of the annual UN gathering of world leaders last month in condemning what it called China’s “horrific campaign of repression” against Muslims in Xinjiang. China denounced the event.