More than 40 mainly Western countries have criticised China at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, keeping a spotlight on a region where foreign governments and researchers say one million people or more have been confined in camps.
The 43 countries that signed the statement criticising China on Thursday expressed particular concern at “credible-based reports” of the existence of “re-education camps” in Xinjiang.
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It was read by France’s UN Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere at a meeting of the General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee.
“We call on China to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and her office,” the countries said.
It was the third time in three years that the US and mainly European nations used the Human Rights Committee meeting to criticise China over its policies on the Uighurs.
Earlier this week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think-tank, released a new report detailing Xinjiang’s “architecture of repression” that it says has been developed to oppress the Uighurs.
The report said at least 1,869,310 Uighurs and other citizens in Xinjiang were singled out after they were discovered to be using Zapya, a mobile messaging application.
In response, Cuba immediately issued a rival statement on behalf of 62 other countries saying that Xinjiang is China’s internal affair. The rival statement dismissed all allegations of abuse there as based on “political motivation” and “disinformation.”
China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun spoke soon after, condemning “the groundless accusations” and “lies”, and accusing the United States and a few other unnamed signatories of the statement of “using human rights as a pretext for political manoeuvring to provoke confrontation.”
He strongly defended the development of Xinjiang, saying the lives of its people were getting better by the day and “your plot to obstruct China’s development is doomed to failure.”
The rival statements underline the long-running tension between China and the world’s liberal democracies over human rights.
Those tensions have escalated especially with the US, and include other issues including the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan, trade, and Beijing’s expansive claim to the South China Sea.
In 2019, 23 countries signed on to a statement read by the United Kingdom.
In 2020, 39 countries signed a statement read by Germany and this year the statement had four more signatories.
Switzerland, however, dropped its signature from the statement because, diplomatic sources said, it recently hosted a high-level meeting between the US and China and decided to prioritise its role as facilitator between these two powers rather than signing the annual declaration calling for respect for human rights in Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, Cuba, which had only 45 signatories last year, got 17 additional countries to support China this year.
“We have seen an increasing number of reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations,” the 43 countries said in their statement, “including reports documenting torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilisation, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children.”
“There are severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association and expression as well as on Uighur culture,” they said.
“Widespread surveillance disproportionately continues to target Uighurs and members of other minorities,” the statement added, as it urged UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, and other UN officials to investigate.
China’s Zhang said Bachelet has “a standing invitation” to visit and “consultations are still going on.”
He stressed that the visit should be “a friendly one” and should not start with “presumed guilt.”
“That’s not acceptable to China,” Zhang said.
Bachelet first asked Beijing in December 2018 for permission to carry out a fact-finding mission in Xinjiang.
The UN rights chief usually only undertakes national visits provided the host government offers guarantees on certain conditions, including unfettered access to key sites and the right to speak with activists.