Written by Nick Cumming-Bruce
Human rights groups called Monday for a United Nations investigation into China’s mass detention of Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang, seeking to galvanize an international response to allegations of widespread abuses.
The rights organizations, presenting the issue as a test of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s credibility, urged it to set up an international fact-finding mission during its session that starts at the end of February.
“The magnitude of abuses allegedly occurring in Xinjiang demand uncompromising scrutiny,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released at a news conference in Geneva.
“The Human Rights Council’s integrity demands that states not allow China to hide behind its membership or economic might to escape accountability,” he said.
Human Rights Watch was joined by Amnesty International, the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights and the World Uyghur Congress, a Munich-based group representing the Uighur ethnic group, sometimes spelled Uyghur.
Investigations by academics and journalists over the past year have exposed a campaign that has swept around 1 million people, mostly Uighur Muslims, into indefinite detention in an expanding network of secretive re-education camps across Xinjiang.
Chinese authorities, invoking what they called the threat of terrorism, have also carried out a draconian crackdown on Muslims that has targeted religious practice and customs. Officials have banned beards, religious instruction of children and even the granting of names with religious connotations to children.
“This is an effort to change the religious and ethnic identity of an important minority,” Roth said, and “absolutely demands an international response.”
Underpinning the campaign has been a surveillance program involving widespread installation of facial recognition technology, collection of DNA samples and deployment of thousands of additional security personnel.
“Xinjiang has become an open-air prison — a place where Orwellian high-tech surveillance, political indoctrination, forced cultural assimilation, arbitrary arrests and disappearances have turned ethnic minorities into strangers in their own land,” Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said in a video statement.
China’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva could not immediately be contacted for comment. Many Chinese government offices have closed in celebration of the Lunar New Year.
China initially responded to reports of mass incarceration of Muslims by issuing blanket denials, but its position changed after a U.N. panel monitoring religious equality expressed its alarm in August.
Defending its record at the Human Rights Council in November, China brushed aside allegations of mass detentions and abuses as politically motivated, presenting its camps as vocational training centers designed to improve the economic prospects and living standards of China’s minorities.
China has sought to reinforce the official narrative this year by taking small groups of diplomats and journalists on carefully arranged visits to Xinjiang, but journalists trying to make independent visits have faced obstacles.
The European Union said last week that a visit by three of its diplomats to sites carefully selected by Chinese authorities had provided insight into China’s official thinking, “but does not invalidate the EU’s view of the human rights situation in Xinjiang, including in relation to mass detention, political re-education, religious freedom and sinicization policies.”
With their call for an international investigation Monday, the human rights groups sought to ratchet up pressure for action not only by the United Nations but also by its member states, including members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which remained conspicuously silent during November’s review of China’s record.
Last year, European states and members of the group of Muslim nations had combined in the Human Rights Council to step up investigation of Myanmar’s atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. “In our view, Xinjiang demands a similar response,” Roth said.
Discreet diplomacy, Roth said, would have no effect on Chinese leaders who, in his view, have concluded that they can get away with the abuses against Muslims. Roth said only public exposure through an international investigation could change China’s course.