China called out over Uyghur Muslim detention by multiple countries, including Australia

Posted by
Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking minority from Central Asia situated in north-west China.

Nearly two dozen countries have called on China to halt its mass detention of ethnic Uyghurs in its north-west Xinjiang region, the first such joint move on the issue at the UN Human Rights Council, according to diplomats and a letter seen by Reuters.

Key points: 

  • China is accused of putting at least 1 million minority Muslims in detention
  • Most of them are Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking minority who practice Islam 
  • Australia and over a dozen other countries have called on China to stop 

The Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking minority from Central Asia, are a distinct ethnic group from Han Chinese, with Urumqi being closer to Kabul than Beijing.

UN experts and activists say at least 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims are held in detention centres in the remote western region. 

China describes them as training centres helping to stamp out Islamic extremism and give people new skills. 

Beijing scaled up the construction of the centres after ethnic violence erupted in the region a decade ago.

Urumqi ten years on

The 2009 riots that led to some of China’s worst ethnic violence and set the wheels in motion for today’s internment camps in Xinjiang began in the most unlikely of places: a toy factory.

The unprecedented letter to the president of the UN forum, dated July 8, was signed by the ambassadors of 22 countries.

Australia, Canada and Japan were among them, along with European countries including Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland, but not the United States which quit the forum a year ago.

It fell short of a formal statement being read out at the council or a resolution submitted for a vote, as sought by activists. 

This was due to governments’ fears of a potential political and economic backlash from China, diplomats said.

A map of Xinjiang and surrounding regions

“It is a first collective response on Xinjiang,” a Western diplomat told Reuters.

“The idea of a resolution was never on the cards.”

Another envoy said: “It’s a formal step because it will be published as an official document of the council … it is a signal.”

In a statement, Human Rights Watch later welcomed the letter as: “important not only for Xinjiang’s population, but for people around the world who depend on the UN’s leading rights body to hold even the most powerful countries to account.”

West shies away from leading joint statement 

A wide shot shows watch towers and barbed wire fence around a building.

The letter voices concern at reports of unlawful detention in “large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang”.

China’s frontier of fear

Satellite imagery lifts the lid on the size and spread of China’s internment camps, used to indoctrinate vast numbers of the Xinjiang region’s Muslim population.

It pointedly cites China’s obligations as a member of the 47-member state forum to maintain the highest standards.

“We call on China to uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief in Xinjiang and across China,” the letter read.

“We call also on China to refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”

The letter urges China to allow international independent experts, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, “meaningful access” to Xinjiang.

Detention camp in Xinjiang

Ms Bachelet, a former president of Chile, has pushed China to grant the UN access to investigate reports of disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly of Muslims in Xinjiang.

China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said last month that he hoped Ms Bachelet would take up an invitation to visit.

‘Like lambs waiting to be killed’

'Like lambs waiting to be killed'

Since last spring, several hundred thousand and possibly more than a million ethnic minorities — mostly Uyghur — in Xinjiang have been interned in mass detention facilities.

A UN spokeswoman said at the time that the trip, including “full access to Xinjiang”, was under discussion.

No Western delegation was willing to take the lead and expose itself as a “ringleader” through a joint statement or resolution, diplomats said. 

China’s delegation is “hopping mad” at the move and is preparing its own letter, a diplomat said.

At the start of the three-week session, which ends on Friday, the Xinjiang vice-governor responded to international condemnation of state-run detention camps by saying that they were vocational centres which had helped “save” people from extremist influences.

China had now effectively contained terrorism and religious extremism in Xinjiang, vice-governor Erkin Tuniyaz told the council in an appearance that was sharply criticised by the US. 

People walk through a security checkpoint into the Hotan Bazaar where a screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping.