Germany has led dozens of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan, urging China to respect the rights of its minority Muslim Uighurs, and expressing their concern about the political situation in Hong Kong, in a move that drew a quick and angry response from Beijing.
“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the recent developments in Hong Kong,” said Germany’s UN ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who led the initiative during a meeting on human rights on Tuesday at the UN.
Heusgen urged China to allow UN rights observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang, where at least a million Uighurs are being held in what it says are vocational skills training centres, but critics call detention camps.
The statement also noted other allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang include severe restrictions on religious freedom, as well as widespread surveillance, forced labour and involuntary sterilisation.
Among the 39 countries signing the declaration were most of the EU member states, as well as Canada, Haiti, Honduras, Australia and New Zealand.
The declaration also called on Beijing to uphold the rights and freedoms of residents of Hong Kong, amid growing allegations of political repression following the imposition of the controversial national security law in July.
It also mentioned rights abuses in Tibet.
Human Rights Watch noted that more countries had signed onto this year’s declaration “despite China’s persistent threats and intimidation tactics against those who speak out.”
In 2019, a similar text drafted by Britain secured only 23 signatures.
Human Rights Watch’s Louis Charbonneau, the organisation’s UN director, said governments should “build on the growing outrage and call on the UN’s leadership to establish without delay an international mechanism for monitoring rights abuses in China.”
China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, refuted the allegations as “groundless”.
Zhang said the declaration is aimed at “provoking confrontation” among UN member states.
“They spread false information and political virus, smeared China, and interfered in China’s internal affairs. China firmly opposes and rejects that,” Zhang said.
Cuba led a rival statement in defence of China that was backed by 45 countries, and condemned the criticism of policies in Xinjiang as interference in China’s internal affairs, the country’s Xinhua news agency reported.
The state news agency that China had extended an invitation to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to visit Xinjiang and discussions were continuing. Bachelet has said she needs free access to the region, in order to properly assess the situation.
Pakistan led another statement on Hong Kong in support of China.
“China’s support list reads like a virtual Who’s Who of leading rights abusers including Russia, Syria and Venezuela,” Human Rights Watch’s Charbonneau said.
Western diplomats have accused China of piling on more pressure each year to dissuade UN member states from signing such statements, threatening to block the renewal of peacekeeping missions for some countries or preventing others from building new embassy facilities in China.
Today, 39 countries including Australia delivered a stinging rebuke of the Chinese government’s brutal treatment of Uyghurs, the people of Hong Kong & Tibet, & many ordinary Chinese struggling to have their human rights respected. https://t.co/dpJKTD2ZkT
— Elaine Pearson (@PearsonElaine) October 6, 2020
On Monday, China led a group of 26 countries in a joint declaration calling for an end to US sanctions which they said were a violation of human rights during the struggle to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) said it had identified more than 380 “suspected detention facilities” in the Xinjiang region, where China is believed to have held more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking residents.
In the US, the House of Representatives passed a bill at the end of September that aims to ban imports from Xinjiang, contending that abuses of the Uighur people are so widespread that all goods from the region should be considered made with slave labour. It previously blacklisted a number of Chinese companies in connection with their activities in Xinjiang.