Once again, the United Nations is the site of a showdown center on China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. On October 29, two different factions submitted statements to the Third Committee session on the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) – one group criticizing China’s actions and the other supporting it.
Open-source analysis of government documents and satellite images, coupled with harrowing stories from escapees and former employees, has revealed that Muslims are being detained on a massive scale in “re-education” camps in China’s far-western region of Xinjiang. Uyghurs, the Muslim-majority ethnic group native to the region, have been targeted along with ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks. It’s estimated that 1 million people or more may have been sent into the camps. Beijing, after initially denying the reports outright, now says that the camps are vocational training centers designed to help combat terrorism in Xinjiang.
Increasing activism from the global community – including the recent U.S. decision to sanction Chinese firms for their assistance in crafting a surveillance state in Xinjiang — has run headlong into China’s vociferous denials. The United Nations has become ground zero for these dueling efforts, which each side marshalling as many allies as possible to make its case.
Notably, it was at a CERD session in 2018 that the Xinjiang situation first made global headlines en masse. CERD member Gay McDougall’s description of Xinjiang as “something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone” at an international forum catapulted the issue into the public eye. China’s delegation responded by denying there were any “re-education centers” at all, a claim that beggared belief. Beijing quickly shifted to admitting the existence of “vocational education and training” centers, but claimed they were voluntary and welcomed by the participants.
On October 29, another clash over Xinjiang played out at the latest CERD session, this time featuring China’s upgraded defense.
A statement by the United Kingdom’s representative on behalf of the U.K. and 22 other countries voiced concerns “regarding credible reports of mass detention; efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices; mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uighurs; and other human rights violations and abuses in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”
“The Chinese government should urgently implement CERD’s eight recommendations related to Xinjiang, including by refraining from the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and members of other Muslim communities,” the statement said.
By contrast, Belarus read a statement on behalf of 54 countries, including “Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Egypt, Bolivia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Serbia.” This statement defended China’s Xinjiang policies as “counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures,” echoing Beijing’s own rhetoric.
“Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers,” Belarus’ statement said. “Now safety and security has returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded.”
“We note with appreciation that human rights are respected and protected in China in the process of counter-terrorism and deradicalization.”
China’s own UN representative, Zhang Jun, also defended his government’s Xinjiang policy, saying that “Xinjiang’s preventive measures of counter-terrorism and de-radicalization are based on law and consistent with the will of the people.”
“This is not about human rights, and has nothing to do with racial discrimination,” Zhang declared.
Instead, he accused the United States and other detractors of having “a hidden political agenda and ulterior motive.”
“By making relentless efforts to defame China on Xinjiang, the United States aims to undermine China’s stability and contain China’s development. Such malicious attempt will never work,” Zhang said.
The Belarussian statement struck a similar note, saying, “We express our firm opposition to relevant countries’ practice of politicizing human rights issues, by naming and shaming, and publicly exerting pressures on other countries.”
There was a similar stand-off at the UN in July. After 22 countries submitted a letter to the president and high commissioner of the UN Human Rights Council expressing concern about detentions and abuses in Xinjiang, China rallied its partners to fight back. Initially 37 countries signed on to a rival letter; the tally later ballooned to 50. As I noted for The Diplomat Magazine at the time, China’s critics were all part of the nebulous “West”: advanced liberal democracies, centered in western Europe. By contrast, China’s eclectic group of supporters was largely united by two factors: their own domestic human rights violations and developing nation status.
A majority of the signatories of that July letter (and presumably October’s statement, although a full list had not been published as of this writing) were smaller, poorer nations from Africa and Asia. Beijing’s pains to conduct diplomacy with (and channel investment) to these long-overlooked countries is paying political dividends. Their support gives China a clear edge in the numbers game at international bodies like the UN, and that in turn lets Beijing claim that the world is on its side.
The Belarus-led statement “fully shows that people of the world see the truth and have their own judgment” on Xinjiang, Zhang said. Given that stance, it’s hard to see the United Nations successfully advocating for any meaningful change in Xinjiang.