Earlier this week, the envoys for 22 countries signed a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council condemning Chinese detention centers where over one million people from the Uyghur minority ethnic group are thought to be detained in the Xinjiang region.
The letter calls on China to immediately halt these programs and release all detained people. China has a worrying track record of cracking down on religious and cultural freedoms, and the ongoing mistreatment of the Uyghur people by one of the most powerful states in the world threatens basic human rights. Tensions between the Chinese government and the Uyghurs have been heightened since 2009, when ethnic riots resulted in deadly conflicts between the Uyghurs and Han Chinese (the majority ethnic group in China). Since then, systematic detention of the Uyghurs has robbed them of their identities and their rights.
The issue has gained significant attention in Western media over the years, however this letter is an official recognition that there is a human rights issue at hand which requires U.N. intervention. The letter was signed by the 22 envoys individually, making it much harder for China to simply dismiss the international criticism it is facing. John Fischer, the Geneva Director for Human Rights Watch, said that the statement “is important not only for Xinjiang’s population but for people around the world who depend on the U.N.’s leading rights body to hold even the most powerful countries to account.”
China has consistently denied allegations of mistreatment in the camps, insisting that they are only vocational training centres where people learn new skills. Despite this defensiveness, China has also resisted pressures to let U.N. officials visit the camps and assess allegations. In response to the recent letter, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “the Chinese government and Chinese people are best qualified to speak on Xinjiang issues, and we do not allow any other countries or powers to interfere.” Additionally, ambassadors from 35 countries – mostly from Asia and the Middle East – have penned an opposing letter which praises China’s advancements in human rights.
The effectiveness of the U.N. Human Rights Council has been questioned since U.S. withdrawal last year, and the existing divide where only some U.N. members are taking active steps to oppose blatant human rights violations shows there is much more to be done to hold China accountable. The consequences of a significant proportion of the international community to allow detainment of minority citizens on the basis of their religious, ethnic, or cultural identities is a most dangerous precedent.