UN members call for ‘immediate, meaningful and unfettered access’ to Xinjiang for rights inquiry

A group of United Nations members has demanded that China grant “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang for the group‘s human rights chief to inspect alleged abuses of Uygurs and other Muslim minorities there.

In a virtual hearing called by Britain, Germany and the United States and backed by 15 other mostly Western UN member states, China was accused by a procession of ambassadors, rights groups and academics of “systematic” persecution of minorities in the far western region.

China was also accused of using its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council – as well as its growing economic heft – of blocking efforts to investigate events in Xinjiang.

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“We appeal to China to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we ask China to tear down the detention camps. If you have nothing to hide, why do you not finally grant unimpeded access to the commissioner for human rights?” Christoph Heusgen, the German ambassador to the UN, asked.

Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s UN ambassador, asked: “If you have nothing to hide, why do you not finally grant unimpeded access to the high commissioner for human rights?” Photo: Europa Newswire/Gado/Getty Images

The UN‘s special rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, said the UN had itself been “timid” in its failure to criticise the situation in Xinjiang more insistently.

“Given the scale of what we have been hearing, or the allegations that have been made, I must admit it seems very timid and I would acknowledge that seems very timid from the side of the UN not to be more vocal and assertive in trying to obtain collaboration from the government of China,” he said.

“Where there‘s smoke, there’s fire, and there’s a heck of a lot of smoke right now affecting hundreds of thousands of people, most of them minorities, most of them Muslims and most of them Uygurs,” Varennes added.

The Turkish delegation described the situation facing Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as “extremely worrying”, saying that Ankara had raised the issue with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on his visit to the country in March, adding that it supported “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region” for the UN human rights chief.

In a strongly worded, unconventional interjection, Guo Jiakun, a member of China’s UN delegation, decried the “lies of the century” and reiterated Beijing’s consistent position that no human rights abuses are taking place in Xinjiang.

As he spoke, someone held a mobile phone up to the camera and played a video of a former US army officer claiming that the West seeks to use unrest in Xinjiang to destabilise the central Chinese government.

The clip, which has gone viral on the Chinese internet, shows Lawrence Wilkerson – who was chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was US secretary of state – addressing a 2018 Washington conference by the conservative Ron Paul Institute, saying that the Central Intelligence Agency would mount an operation in China using Uygurs in Xinjiang.

China state media claim Xinjiang conspiracy hidden in video

“So the truth is, it is not about human rights in Xinjiang, it‘s about using Xinjiang as a political tool for containing China,” Guo said, adding that allegations of genocide and forced labour are “lies of the century, which never happened, and it will never happen in China”.

“We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang, but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies, and with the presumption of guilt,” he added.

The UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has been in talks about a visit to Xinjiang, but no human rights commissioner has visited the country since September 2005. A planned visit to the region by EU ambassadors in March stalled over their request for access to Ilham Tohti, the jailed Uygur academic.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield joined the call for China to grant the UN’s human rights chief “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang. Photo: AP

Reuters reported last week that China‘s UN delegation had urged members not to attend the hearing, saying: “We request your mission NOT to participate in this anti-China event.”

But China was greatly outnumbered at the hearing, after diplomats from nations including Australia, Denmark, France and Slovakia all made statements condemning Beijing‘s actions in Xinjiang and calling for an independent inspection of the situation.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, argued that there were “credible reports that many Uygur people and other ethnic and religious minorities who only wish to practice basic freedom of religion, belief, expression and movement are being forced to work until they drop, manufacturing clothes and goods at the behest of the state”.

Xinjiang has become a major bone of geopolitical contention between China and the West.

In March, Britain, Canada, the European Union and the US coordinated sanctions on Chinese officials and an entity for their roles in the alleged abuses; Beijing immediately followed with reprisals on a host of European elected officials, academics and ambassadors.

The tit-for-tat sanctioning has raised questions concerning the completion of a broad EU-China investment deal, reached at the end of 2020 but yet to be ratified by the European Parliament.

Last year, the US government, then led by Donald Trump, became the first to classify the collective programme of actions in Xinjiang as “genocide”. Joe Biden’s administration has maintained this stance.

Parliaments in Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have also defined Xinjiang abuses as genocide, but their respective governments have not endorsed the stances.

Human rights groups and academics speaking at Wednesday‘s hearing said that without access to Xinjiang, it was difficult to ascertain the conditions of genocide, but urged governments not to play down the gravity of lesser “crimes against humanity”.

“What‘s going on in Xinjiang is clearly an example of crimes against humanity, which is very severe. There’s this tendency to feel that if you do not call it genocide is not really bad, that is wrong. You know, crimes against humanity is awful,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Roth said the UN should explore “alternative avenues to justice” that could bypass China’s use of its Security Council veto.

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