China is facing mounting pressure from the international community to account for its policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where an estimated one million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been held in a sprawling system of political “re-education camps.”
On Wednesday, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she had called on China to allow international monitors access to the region to verify reports of arbitrary detentions in the camps, where authorities have held Uyghurs and other Muslims accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas since April 2017.
“My office seeks to engage on this issue with the government for full access to carry out an independent assessment of the continuing reports pointing to wide patterns of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Bachelet said, marking her second request for access to the region in six months at the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC).
Bachelet’s statement came a day after U.N. religious freedom investigator Ahmed Shaheed told the media that he had also requested access to the XUAR in February to investigate concerns over China’s “de-extremification” law.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the XUAR, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
China recently organized two visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that China has invited “many groups from overseas” to visit the XUAR, and welcomes all parties to the region, “if they act in compliance with the Chinese law,” according to a report by the state-owned China Global Television Network group.
“China does not welcome organizations which visit Xinjiang with political purposes and attempt to harm China's interests,” the report said, citing Lu.
Lu also urged the HRC and other relevant departments to “adhere to the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter, and respect the human rights of member states when performing their duties,” it said.
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, welcomed Bachelet’s statement and urged China to grant unfettered access to monitors.
“If China is telling the truth to the U.N., and those camps are not re-education camps, but rather vocational training centers, as it claims, then China should honor High Commissioner Bachelet’s request to have ‘full access to carry out an independent assessment’ of the situation in East Turkestan,” he said, using a name preferred by many Uyghurs to refer to their historic homeland.
“China should also allow all U.N. rapporteurs, including Ahmad Shaheed, to visit East Turkestan immediately.”
Ilshat Hassan, president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association, called Bachelet’s request “the right step for the U.N.”
“As an international body that promotes and protects the basic human rights of all human beings, the U.N. should definitely take immediate action on behalf of the Uyghur people, who are facing an existential threat under China’s communist rule,” he said.
“If China doesn’t grant High Commissioner Bachelet’s request to visit the concentration camps in East Turkestan, then the U.N. should call on all member states at the General Assembly to pass a resolution to condemn China’s crimes against humanity in the region.”
Lawmakers demand action
Bachelet’s call for access to camps in the XUAR followed a letter from a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, admonishing U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration for failing to hold Beijing to account for its repressive policies in the region.
U.S. Representative Eliot Engel led a group of lawmakers from the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, including Brad Sherman, Ted Yoho, and Chris Smith in writing the March 4 letter, which suggested the administration “has taken no meaningful action in response to the situation in the XUAR,” more than four months after they called for sanctions to be applied on those responsible for abuses there.
“Rhetoric without action will only embolden Beijing,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter referred to the bipartisan “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act,” put forward in January by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, which would dedicate new resources from the U.S. State Department, FBI, and other intelligence agencies to documenting abuse of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims in the XUAR, as well as Beijing’s intimidation of U.S. citizens and residents on American soil.
The act calls for “high-level U.S. engagement” on the issue, as well as the application of travel and financial sanctions against Chinese officials who are responsible for the policies in the XUAR under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Monday’s letter requested that Pompeo provide a detailed response about whether the U.S. monitors the use of U.S. technology that could be used to facilitate surveillance or mass arbitrary detention of Muslims in the XUAR, as well as information on any U.S. companies that are allegedly providing technology transfers, sales, or security training for Chinese officials or associated entities in the XUAR.
It also called for specifics about U.S. engagements with the Chinese government on the human rights abuses in the XUAR, the level of coordination and plans for future engagement with like-minded countries and partners on the situation in the region, and the administration’s strategy for holding Beijing accountable.
“The United States must stand up for the oppressed and, at every opportunity, make clear to the Chinese government that the situation in XUAR is a priority for the U.S. government,” he said.
“The issue is bigger than just China. It is about demonstrating to strongmen globally that the world will hold them accountable for their actions.”
Last month, while speaking at an event in Washington commemorating 60 years of exile by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had talked with Pompeo at the conclusion of the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 7 and urged him to bring up the issue of China’s political “re-education camps” in the XUAR with his counterparts in Beijing.
Pelosi said Washington is obligated to bring up the Uyghur issue, and other examples of religious repression, with Beijing, and “shouldn’t hesitate because of any commercial interest with China.”
“If we don’t, we lose all moral authority to speak about human rights any place in the world,” she added.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.