The Debate

Xi’s US Trip: A Chance to Stand up for Uyghur Rights

Xi Jinping’s trip to the U.S. and address to the UN provide an opportunity to highlight abuses of Uyghur human rights.

Xi’s US Trip: A Chance to Stand up for Uyghur Rights

Uyghur rights activists protest outside the White House in 2009.

Credit: Flickr/ Malcolm Brown

The visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to Washington, DC on September 24-25 comes at a critical time in the Sino-American relationship. Volatility in the Chinese economy, escalating tensions in the South China Sea, and cybersecurity are issues that will no doubt dominate the agenda as U.S. officials meet the Chinese delegation.

When a Chinese president arrives in Washington, it is essential that human rights issues also form part of the state-to state discussions. This time is no different. Uyghurs, Tibetans, Southern Mongolians, and Han Chinese see it as the moral responsibility of U.S. leaders to remind Chinese government representatives of their obligations to China’s citizens. President Obama must highlight the deteriorating human rights situation in China during Xi Jinping’s presidency. Restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, curbs on religious rights and economic discrimination in China are severe and imperative to tackle, as they are major causes of domestic instability and human suffering.

While Xi’s U.S. visit has become the focus of media attention, it is also important to highlight his September 28 address to the United Nations (UN) and the role of the UN. The General Assembly this year marks the 70th anniversary of the UN and a plethora of global leaders are expected to descend upon New York.

The anniversary should mark a reexamination of the UN’s founding principles and a reinvestment in multilateral solutions to endemic injustice. Oppressed peoples the world over look to the United States to speak up against the proven autocrats and human rights abusers; however, it is a duty the United States should not bear alone.

Article 1 of the UN Charter calls on states to promote and encourage “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted at the third General Assembly in 1948 is the basis for international human rights standards to which all UN members consent.

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China’s record on human rights toward the Uyghur people regarding these international standards is miserable and it is time for the international community through the UN system to bring China’s leaders to account.

History shows how the Chinese Communists denied the Uyghur people their right to self-determination and how Han Chinese immigration, forced and encouraged, has almost turned the Uyghurs into a minority in their homeland. Benefits of regional development have gone principally to these newcomers, and Uyghurs face job discrimination, a shrinking space to speak their language, and the destruction of their traditional communities. The farce of the political rights granted Uyghurs under ethnic autonomy laws and the constitution is well documented as any genuine Uyghur representation and participation in policy making is absent.

Since the unrest of July 5, 2009 and the presidency of Xi Jinping, the situation has worsened for Uyghurs. Credible reports of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and sham trials of activists constitute some of the gravest of human rights abuses. Often in the name of counterterrorism, armed state forces conduct operations targeting Uyghurs with impunity. The idea that there could be a civil society process to monitor political deployments of China’s formidable security presence in the Uyghur region is unthinkable.

The UN system exists to make sure these human rights violations do not occur. China’s upcoming review by the Committee Against Torture is one such opportunity to speak out. Member states must sincerely examine accusations of mistreatment in China’s opaque criminal justice process. Furthermore, nations must seek a serious commitment from China’s leaders to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to respond to pending visit requests from UN Special Rapporteurs, such as the one from the independent expert on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Chinese diplomats posted to the United Nations understand the damage that comes with exposure of Chinese government human rights abuses. On several occasions, Uyghur delegations have faced harassment and attempts to prevent them from speaking at UN human rights procedures at the hands of Chinese government representatives, including at China’s 2013 Universal Periodic Review.

As Xi Jinping takes the podium at the UN General Assembly on September 28, it will confirm his stature as an international statesman and bolster his standing among the power elites of Beijing. His triumph will be perceived as an accomplishment for his nation. However, when listening to Xi remark upon the great progress of China, the gathered state leaders and government officials should keep in mind that just one year before Xi’s government imprisoned for life Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur academic dedicated to improving the condition of the Uyghur people through peaceful dialogue.

Rebiya Kadeer is the President of the World Uyghur Congress.