Following claims made last month by human rights groups to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Amnesty International has unwaveringly called for China to end its repression of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. It is now believed that up to one million Uighur Muslims are being detained by the Chinese government in internment camps in China’s western province of Xinjiang.
In a statement, Amnesty International’s Deputy East Asia Director Lisa Tassi concluded that the UN Committee’s findings ‘highlight the systematic oppression of ethnic minorities in China, including the mass arbitrary detention of Chinese Uighurs and others in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.’ She advised that the Chinese government now ‘heed the call to tackle serious human rights violations’ and ‘immediately set out [the] next steps to address them.’ Tassi’s appeal follows a statement made by a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Gay McDougall that China has turned the Xinjiang region ‘into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy,’ labelling it ‘a sort of ‘no-rights zone.”
Access to Xinjiang is strictly limited, but the reports heard last month by the UN Committee detailed how up to one million Uighur Muslims are being forced to undergo ‘re-education’ programmes away from their Turkic ethnic origins. The Human Rights Watch organization claims that these camps enforce the study of communist propaganda, Mandarin Chinese and renunciation of the Muslim faith. Intense surveillance and biometric testing of Xinjiang’s residents are also reportedly in place, and the Washington Post has reported the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture.
China has repeatedly denied the existence of internment camps in Xinjiang. Hu Lianhe, a senior Chinese government official, instead stated that ‘criminals charged with minor offences’ have been sent to ‘vocational education and employment training centres’. The Chinese government also claimed that it is undertaking measures to deal with threats from separatist Islamist groups in Xinjiang, citing events such as the 2009 riots in the region between Uighur Muslims and the Han Chinese that killed almost 200 people. The UN Committee concluded, however, that such claims are being used by the Chinese government as a false pretext to justify the targeted mass detention of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
Amnesty International’s response to the findings of the UN rightly reminds the international community of its responsibility to ‘hold China to account’ for its repressive policies and abuse of human rights in Xinjiang. Her call represents an important contribution by Amnesty International to the pressure that is mounting on Beijing to directly address these claims and a prompt that the findings of the UN should not be ignored.
Although no country has yet taken action towards China, a growing congressional movement in the US is calling for the Trump administration to enforce sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the repressive policies in Xinjiang. With the Chinese government already defensively calling for the UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to respect its sovereignty in the province, however, it seems unlikely that Beijing would take such an escalation in intervention lightly. In the meantime, it remains to be seen how the rest of the international community will heed the lessons of previous ethnic persecution to defend the rights of China’s Uighur Muslims.
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