On July 19th, the U.K. Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses against its Muslim Uighur population, an ethnic minority in the western province of Xinjiang. Raab stated that sanctions against those responsible cannot be ruled out. Since 2018, concerns have been raised of the People’s Republic of China’s systematic oppression of Uighur Muslims by human rights groups. Human Rights Watch reported Uighur in Xinjiang are subject to mass surveillance and around one-million ethnic Uighur are being held in so-called “re-education camps” to purge them of their faith and identity.
In an interview with the BBC, the Chinese ambassador to the U.K. rejected all accusations against the Chinese government’s mistreatment of the Uighur. Beijing, after initially denying the existence of these compounds, now says the camps are ‘vocational education centres,’ designed to combat ‘extremism’ and teach students Mandarin and job skills. The Chinese ambassador commented, “If the [U.K.] goes that far to impose sanctions on any individuals in China, China will certainly make a resolute response to it.” BBC News diplomatic correspondent James Landale analysed,
“The risk for Britain is that it gets caught in the crossfire between Washington and Beijing. The price for defending human rights could be less trade with China – and that could prove costly in a post-COVID economic downturn.”
Economic rationale however, even during the COVID crisis, cannot justify turning a blind eye towards the human rights abuses by Beijing, and would problematically signalize impunity for the world’s economic powerhouse. Up until this year, collective international action through the UN has proven difficult, as China’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council from 2017-2020, resulted in all progress on the matter being blocked. Raab’s statement is therefore important, showing the U.K. is prepared to take unilateral action against Beijing, as Beijing has faced little repercussion from the international community to date.
The U.K., however, is not the first government to condemn Beijing’s systematic human rights abuses of Uighur people, following the U.S. and Australia who issued statements last year. Fact is nonetheless, one year has passed since the UN reported one million Uighur Muslims are being held in detention camps, and the problem persists. Besides the U.S.’ visa restrictions and sanctions on responsible Chinese officials, concrete measures are lacking, and the international community is failing to hold China accountable and bring justice to the Uighurs.
In 2016 conditions in Xinjiang deteriorated sharply, as Chen QuanTguo became Party Secretary of the province, moved from the position in Tibet, where China seeked to crush ethnic unrest through a system of control. To date, 90 compounds of detention camps in Xinjiang have been located, in which political and cultural indoctrination, ill-treatment, and sometimes torture have been reported by Human Rights Watch. Additionally, earlier this year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute raised alarms that thousands of Uighurs have been moved to factories, working under coercive conditions to supply some of the world’s biggest brands.
Beyond the Uighur matter, U.K.-Chinese relations are coming under increased strain in light of the new Hong Kong national security law imposed by the Chinese government. As the U.K. has recently taken actions against North Korean bodies behind forced labour camps, it is not unlikely that the U.K. will step up pressure on Beijing, and the Chinese ambassador has warned, “you have seen what happened between China [and] the United States … I do not want to see this tit-for-tat between China-[U.S.] happen in China-[U.K.] relations.” To sum up, well aware of Beijing’s abuses in Xinjiang, the time has come for the U.K. and the international community to take responsibility and implement stern yet peaceful measures to match their words.
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