United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres effort to broach the detention of a million or more Uyghurs in political re-education camps with Chinese leaders at the weekend disappointed Uyghur groups and human rights experts and elicited Beijing’s stock defense of the mass incarceration.
Guterres, on his fourth visit to China as UN chief, attended a summit on Saturday of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and held talks with President Xi Jinping. He had been urged by diplomats from Western countries and Turkey to raise the situation in Xinjiang during his meetings.
The diplomats wanted the secretary general to use his position to appeal to Beijing on behalf of 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas who are being held in political “re-education camps” across the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since April 2017.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at the UN in New York on Monday that Guterres had "discussed all relevant issues with Chinese authorities."
"He did just that, and that includes the situation in Xinjiang," he said.
“Human rights must be fully respected in the fight against terrorism and in the prevention of violent extremism,” Dujarric told reporters.
"Each community must feel that its identity is respected and that it fully belongs to the nation as a whole," Dujarric added.
The Associated Press quoted a U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, as saying that Guterres did not raise the Uyghur issue with Xi, but did discuss the matter during a meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
“His telling the Chinese government that human rights must be respected was no more than window dressing,” said Nury Turkel, chairman of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project exile group.
“He must speak out on the Uyghur tragedies. His tiptoeing around the crisis is both unacceptable and untenable on the face of China’s criminalization of the entire ethnic group with genocidal intent,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“The scope and scale of the Uyghur crisis cry out for condemnation and actions by international bodies such as the UN and Organization of the Islamic Conference,” added Turkel.
'Weak expression of concern'
Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, echoed those concerns, telling RFA that “Guterres’ weak expression of concern over the mass incarceration of Uyghurs is regrettable.”
“He didn’t specifically express his concern over the arbitrary and unlawful detention of over two million Uyghurs in Chinese concentration camps or call for the immediate closure of these camps,” he said.
Worse, according to Isa, Guterres “linked the incarceration of millions of Uyghurs to China’s territorial integrity and counter-terrorism efforts instead of focusing on the crimes against humanity that is happening in East Turkestan.”
“Such expression of concern by the UN General Secretary will only justify and embolden the Chinese government to carry on its current policies of cultural genocide and mass detentions,” said Isa.
China, the UN’s second largest financial contributor and a veto-wielding Security Council member, responded to reporters’ questions about Gutteres’ remarks with Beijing’s stock reply to criticism and defense of the camps.
"We firmly oppose any interference in China's internal affairs under the pretext of human rights issues," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing.
"Xinjiang affairs belong to China's internal affairs. Terrorism and extremism are wanton violations of basic human rights," he added.
"The preventive anti-terrorism and anti-extremism measures taken by China in Xinjiang are carried out in accordance with the law, and human rights are also respected and protected," Geng said.
China's justification undercut
Gutteres’ weekend remarks surfaced on the same day that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a damning report on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs that summed up deteriorating human rights conditions in the XUAR in 2018 and rejected China’s defense of the camps.
“The detention of prominent doctors, professors, businessmen, and other professionals belied the government’s justification for the camps,” said the USCIRF in its annual report.
“Most of the detainees have not been charged with a specific crime, but rather were detained for religious behavior deemed ‘extremist,’ such as having an ‘abnormal’ beard, wearing a veil, accessing religious materials online, or participating in other ‘illegal religious activities,” the report said.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, who last week wrote a tough op-ed in the Washington Post describing Guterres as “becoming defined by his silence on human rights,” was not impressed by his performance in Beijing.
“How does UN Secretary-General @AntonioGuterres discuss China's detention of one million Uighurs for forced indoctrination?” Roth wrote on twitter.
“According to his spokesperson: 1. Solely in private. 2. Without mentioning the Uyghurs. 3. Without any criticism, just bromides.”
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.
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.
Adrian Zenz, a lecturer in social research methods at the Germany-based European School of Culture and Theology, earlier this month said that some 1.5 million people are or have been detained in the camps—equivalent to just under 1 in 6 members of the adult Muslim population of the XUAR—after initially putting the number at 1.1 million.
In November 2018, Scott Busby, the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State, said there are "at least 800,000 and possibly up to a couple of million" Uyghurs and others detained at re-education camps in the XUAR without charges, citing U.S. intelligence assessments.
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.