The United States led more than 30 countries on Tuesday in condemning what it called China‘s “horrific campaign of repression” against Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang at an event on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly that was denounced by the government in Beijing.
In highlighting abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in China, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said the United Nations and its member states had “a singular responsibility to speak up when survivor after survivor recounts the horrors of state repression.”
Sullivan said it was incumbent on UN-member states to ensure the world body was able to closely monitor human rights abuses by China and added that it must seek “immediate, unhindered, and unmonitored” access to Xinjiang for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Sullivan said Tuesday’s event was co-sponsored by Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, and was joined by more than 30 UN states, representatives of the European Union and more than 20 nongovernmental organisations, as well as Uighurs themselves.
“We invite others to join the international effort to demand and compel an immediate end to China’s horrific campaign of repression,” he said. “History will judge the international community for how we respond to this attack on human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Paola Pampaloni, deputy managing director for Asia of the European External Action Service, said the EU was “alarmed” by the situation and also urged “meaningful” access to Xinjiang.
“We are concerned about … information about mistreatment and torture,” she said. “China is always inviting us to the camps under their conditions, we are in negotiations right now for terms and conditions for free access.”
On Monday, US President Donald Trump had called for an end to religious persecution at another event on the sidelines of the UN gathering. He repeated his comments in a speech on Tuesday.
Trump, who has been cautious about upsetting China on human rights issues while making a major trade deal with Beijing a major priority, said religious freedom was under growing threat around the world but fell short of specifically mentioning the situation in Xinjiang.
“Volume is coming up at a pace that we hope that the Beijing government recognises not only US but the global concern about this situation,” David Stilwell, US Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs told reporters at a briefing.
“We will see how that plays out and how Beijing reacts and take it from there.”
China angrily criticised the US for organising the conference and called on Washington “to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” according to the Xinhua state news agency.
Its foreign minister, Wang Yi, is due to address the UN on Friday. In an address at an event hosted by the US-China Business Council in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA, he said the measures taken in Xinjiang were necessary to prevent ‘extremism and terrorism’.
The UN says at least one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained in what China describes as “vocational training centres” to stamp out extremism and give people new skills.
Sullivan said the US had received “credible reports of deaths, forced labour, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment” in the camps.
He said there were also reports that the Chinese government forced detainees to renounce their ethnic identities as well as their culture and religion.
Though US officials have ramped up criticism of China’s measures in Xinjiang, it has refrained from responding with sanctions, amid on-again, off-again talks to resolve a bitter, costly trade war.
At the same time, it has criticised other countries, including some Muslim states, for not doing enough or for backing China’s approach in Xinjiang.
Rishat Abbas, the brother of Uighur physician Gulshan Abbas, who was abducted from her home in Urumqi in September 2018, told Tuesday’s event that “millions of Uighurs are becoming collateral damage to international trade policies, enabling China to continue to threaten our freedoms around the world, enable it to continue its police state.”
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has repeatedly pushed China to grant the UN access to investigate reports of disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly of Muslims in Xinjiang.
China’s envoy in Geneva said in June that he hoped Bachelet would visit China, including Xinjiang. Bachelet’s office said in June that it was discussing “full access”.