The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, announced at a UN gathering in Geneva on September 14th, that she is in discussions with Chinese authorities regarding a possible visit to the Xinjiang region. The announcement comes amidst growing criticism and controversy surrounding the treatment of the ethnic Uyghurs in China. The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that live in Northwest China. Over the past decade, there have been reports of population control, crimes against humanity, and the presence of concentration camps detaining many Uyghurs. China has repeatedly denied all allegations and claims that any action taken against the Uyghurs has been in the name of counterterrorism. Now, with increased and reliable reporting coming out of the region, as well as a complaint lodged with the International Criminal Court, the United Nations is seeking to intervene and assess.
In the same week as Bachelet’s announcement, Beijing, while not responding directly to the UN declaration, invited several EU diplomats to come visit Xinjiang. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, stated, “On Xinjiang-related issues, we have always welcomed friends from all over the world, including the European side, to go to Xinjiang for a walk and take a look to understand the real situation in Xinjiang, rather than hearsay and belief in deliberately fabricated lies.” While the statement is not false, it omits certain truths from past experiences that may be relevant. China has, on several occasions, invited members of the press and western world to come visit Xinjiang but only if the visiting parties consent to strict guidelines about where they can go, and agree not to discuss or report on human rights issues.
The deterioration of Uyghur human rights is but one issue on a continuously growing list of international society’s grievances against China. Since the rise of China’s president, Xi Jinping, there has been a consolidation and centralization of power, as well as a deterioration of many freedoms and human rights in the country. The past few years have seen continual controversy surrounding trade, allegations of IP theft, the Taiwan Strait crisis, protests in Hong Kong, and most recently, the abuse of the Uyghurs.
The implications of the suspected happenings in the Xinjiang region are grave and the world is already feeling them. This week, the U.S. announced that it would be halting many of its imports from the Uyghur region, and many large retailers, such as H&M, are cutting ties with their production facilities in the region over concerns of slave labour. Is this the solution? Likely not. In fact, while it serves to alleviate the Western conscience, it may hurt the Uyghurs even more as they stand to lose sources of productivity and the watchful eye of those who could impose standards and accountability measures.
The international community has, for a long time, struggled to reign in China and exercise effective measures to curb their growing abuses of power. Thankfully, in this age of diplomacy and in recognition of the military capability each side possesses, it has not come to violence or combative solutions. But perhaps, in light of the ineffective solutions of the past and China’s continued misbehaviour, the latter feels it is immune to the repercussions of its actions. Thus, while an investigation into the Uyghur situation is imperative, China likely will not feel it needs to consent to this and cooperate. There’s no point denying they are one of the world’s most powerful players, especially where defense and economics are concerned. But how much longer will the rest of the world put up with its antics in the name of interdependence and protecting its own interests? It is time to utilize the international forums (the UN, for example) and double down on the commitment to creating a cooperative world that recognizes, protects and upholds the fundamentals of sovereignty and human rights.
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