UN Office of Counter-Terrorism head, Vladimir Voronkov, has visited the capital of Xinjiang in China, at the invitation of Beijing. The North-Western region of China is home to millions of ethnic Uyghurs and Turkic peoples, with close to one million of these held in detention centres in the name of state security. Several members of the UN Security Council as well as human rights advocates have condemned this visit, believing that its highly controlled nature will obscure the reality of the situation, while a visit from the Office of Counter-Terrorism could legitimize Chinese claims that what many perceive as human rights abuses in Xinjiang are legitimately countering violent extremism.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan has condemned both the visit and Chinese actions in Xinjiang. While the U.S. has been preparing sanctions over Xinjiang, Sullivan has expressed concerns that no UN Human Rights Chief has been granted access since 2005, and reiterated U.S. disapproval of internment camps in Xinjiang. Diplomats from Britain and Germany worried that if Voronkov did not condemn Chinese repressions, the global community would perceive his response as UN complicity or approval. Condemnations also came from rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. HRW spoke of disappearances in the region being explained away by Beijing as part of counter-terrorism efforts, and worried that the visit would overshadow ongoing attempts by UN Human Rights Chief Bachelet to gain unrestricted access to the region in a visit.
Following Voronkov’s visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the UN and Beijing had reached a ‘broad consensus’ about counter-terrorism work. As the standard-bearer for Human Rights codification and development, the UN should be careful not to be drawn into complicity with those who would seek to restrict the rights of minority populations. Its status as a world congress and impartial community should help it uphold the requirements of ethical counterterrorism – one that is transparent and equitable. Members should work together to pressure China to allow unfettered access to the detainees – this should include access for reporters and representatives of human rights organizations.
The brutal actions in Xinjiang are not limited to illegal detention of the Muslim Uyghur population, but also include illegal surveillance and imprisonment of ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Chinese Muslims, as well as torture, and something the Chinese government has euphemistically called ‘re-education.’ Detention and close surveillance of China’s Muslim population in the Xinjiang province has been an issue for several years. Internment camps, which are described by Beijing as ‘vocational training centres’ teach Mandarin, and forbid the speaking of ethnic languages and open practice of Islam.
UN Members should work together to pressure China to allow unfettered access to the detainees – this should include access for reporters and representatives of human rights organizations. Following these events, it remains to be seen how soon Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet can gain access to the region. Though U.S. coming sanctions and international condemnation may have some effect if they continue, the eyes of the world must remain on the plight of Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang province – the more we avert our gaze, the easier it is for oppressors to hide their work.