A group of 22 countries has issued a statement urging China to stop the mass detention of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in its western Xinjiang region, the first concerted international challenge to a policy China has vigorously defended at the United Nations.
In a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the states told China to uphold its own laws and international obligations, and stop arbitrary incarceration of Uighurs and other Muslim and minority communities, and permit freedom of religion. The letter was delivered Monday and publicly seen on Wednesday.
Britain, France and Germany were among 18 European countries that, joined by Japan, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, drew attention to reports of large-scale arbitrary detentions and asked Ms. Bachelet to keep the Human Rights Council regularly updated on developments.
China experts, drawing on official Chinese documents, satellite imagery and the testimony of families whose relatives have been detained, estimate that China has detained a million or more people in re-education centers and has imposed intrusive surveillance.
China denied such actions when a United Nations human rights committee questioned the policy last year but later said it was providing vocational training to insulate Xinjiang’s population from what it described as the global scourge of extremism.
To counter international critics, last month China brought Xinjiang’s deputy governor, an ethnic Uighur, to the council, where he asserted that such training is lifting Xinjiang’s people from poverty. The deputy governor, Aierken Tuniyazi, also rejected accusations that the trainees are in detention camps.
“The trainees’ personal dignity and freedom are fully protected,” he said, describing students living in air-conditioned dormitories and dividing their time between learning valuable skills and participating in ethnic dancing, singing or sports.
China has used its economic leverage and diplomatic muscle to support this narrative with some success. Muslim countries have remained silent and have even praised China’s treatment of its Muslims. Cameroon, a beneficiary of Chinese infrastructure spending, devoted a statement in the council last week to praising China’s “big achievement” in Xinjiang.
And last month Vladimir Voronkov, the Russian diplomat heading the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office, visited Xinjiang and in his end of mission statement made no reference to human rights concerns there, an omission that human rights groups saw as a propaganda gift to Chinese authorities.
The United States had previously led criticism of China’s treatment of Uighurs and led a joint statement condemning China’s treatment of lawyers and human rights activists in the Human Rights Council in 2016. But the United States withdrew from the council a year ago and did not sign the letter.
Diplomats said there was little prospect of another country leading a resolution in the council and exposing itself to the political and economic retaliation China often threatens against states that criticize it, especially in prominent forums.
The joint letter, on the contrary, had no obvious coordinator or sponsor, making it difficult for China to single out a particular signer for retribution. Diplomats said the letter provided a less risky but nonetheless effective way for states to express indignation over China’s measures in Xinjiang.
There was no immediate comment from China on the letter, but diplomats said China’s envoys in Geneva were preparing a counter-letter. Human rights activists welcomed it.
“The joint statement demonstrates that Beijing is wrong to think it can escape international scrutiny for its abuses in Xinjiang, and the pressure will only increase until these appalling abuses end,” John Fisher, director of Human Rights Watch’s Geneva office, said in a statement.
“Governments are increasingly recognizing the suffering of millions of people in Xinjiang, with families torn apart and living in fear, and a Chinese state that believes it can commit mass violations uncontested,” he said.
The letter also called on China to allow “meaningful access” to Xinjiang for Ms. Bachelet and other independent international observers. Chinese diplomats in Geneva have expressed the wish to have the high commissioner visit Xinjiang but in their discussions with Ms. Bachelet’s office have yet to agree on the terms.