A group of 115 Czech and Slovak scholars and public figures have appealed to China’s government to shut down political re-education camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and commit to the protection of human rights in the country.
In a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on Monday, the 115 representatives of academia, public life, nongovernmental organizations, and think tanks expressed concerns over the repression of ethnic Uyghurs, Tibetans and other ethnic and religious minorities, as well as civil society the media and other social groups in China.
The group said it was “particularly alarmed by the repression of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and condemn the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people in political reeducation camps.”
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in re-education camps throughout the XUAR, and some 1.1 million people are believed to have been held in the network—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.
On Monday, the group called on China to “immediately release all persons detained in the political reeducation camps, to end the repressive policy in Xinjiang, Tibet and other minority regions, and to uphold political, religious and cultural rights.”
They also noted that Beijing is “using ever more assertive methods” to advance its claims in disputed border areas, including supporting non-democratic regimes and working to weaken the political systems and societies of democratic countries, adding that these tactics “compromise liberal values in international relations and pose a security threat to the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.”
They urged Czech and Slovak state authorities to join an international call for the observance of universal human rights in China, to end cooperation with state and non-state actors within and outside of China which are involved in the repression of Uyghurs and other Chinese people, to fast-track political asylum applications from Chinese nationals, and to strengthen support for human rights and democracy.
‘We cannot stay silent’
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service, Martin Slobodnik, a professor of Chinese and Tibetan Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, said he and other signatories felt the need to “raise awareness about this ugly face of the Chinese regime” on the anniversary of the UDHR, which was enacted by the U.N. and established, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.
“We also call on the authorities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to include the issue of human rights and especially the persecution of ethnic groups in Xinjiang into their bilateral agenda with China,” he said.
“We cannot stay silent and just watch when hundreds of thousands of innocent people have to endure imprisonment and brainwashing just because they are Uyghurs or they are Muslims.”
Slobodnik said that the growing global role of China in international politics and economy had left governments more reluctant to voice concerns about rights abuses in China, and suggested that it was the responsibility of scholars and civil society to do so.
He highlighted Slovakia and the Czech Republic’s own history of Communist persecution between the years of 1948 and 1988, when they were united as the Soviet-aligned state of Czechoslovakia, which he said had created “a heightened sensitivity towards authoritarian control and Communism in general” amongst the population—especially among intellectuals and academics.
Ondrej Klimes, a researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences’ Oriental Institute, who spearheaded Monday’s statement, told RFA that it was time for scholars and academics throughout the world to inform the public and state institutions about the issue of human rights violations in China.
“It’s good for the Chinese authorities to know that the number of people throughout the world who are concerned about the situation in China is quite high … and the negative reaction to China’s policies is rising,” he said.
“This message actually implies that the number of people who think that human rights and civil rights and cultural rights and religious rights and all other rights which are being violated today within [the XUAR] or within the other regions of China … are universal, so it actually is a common problem of mankind and human rights are universal, regardless of what a national government that is elected or self-appointed says.”
Klimes said that while the appeal is partly aimed at China, it also called on the governments of Slovakia and the Czech Republic to only take part in Chinese-led trade initiatives “on the condition that human rights are observed within the People’s Republic of China.”
“We think that in a democratic society, citizens or academics or media can actually initiate a conversation and cooperation with their [own] governments, which will hopefully lead to action from these national governments towards the government of the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
Monday’s statement joined that of 21 rights groups—including Munich-based World Uyghur Congress and U.S.-based International Tibet Network—who called on the international community to “stand up to the Chinese government” over rights violations against Uyghurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities.
Mass detentions in the XUAR have drawn significant attention from the international community, and particularly from the U.S., where lawmakers have called for access to the camps and proposed sanctions against officials and entities in China deemed responsible for abusing the rights of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of re-education camps, the chairman of the XUAR government, Shohrat Zakir, told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October that the facilities are an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations has shown that those held in the camps are detained against their will, are subjected to political indoctrination and rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities. The atmosphere is more like a prison than any kind of school, multiple sources say.
The statements marking the 70th anniversary of the UDHR came as RFA learned that authorities in the XUAR capital Urumqi had arrested well-known poet, writer, film director and producer Muhter Bughra, who worked for the Xinjiang People’s TV Station.
The timing and reason for his arrest was not immediately clear, and sources were unable to confirm whether he had been imprisoned or sent to a re-education camp.
Reported by Kurban Niyaz for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.