Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council

A member of the Uighur community holds a placard during protests in London calling on Britain's parliament to vote to recognise alleged persecution of China's Muslim Uighur minority as genocide, in April 2021.
A member of the Uighur community holds a placard during protests in London calling on Britain's parliament to vote to recognise alleged persecution of China's Muslim Uighur minority as genocide, in April 2021. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - More than 40 countries led by Canada voiced grave concerns at the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday (June 22) about China's actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet - triggering a fierce backlash from Beijing.

The widely anticipated joint statement had been in the pipeline for several days and was delivered on day two of the 47th session of the council in Geneva.

"We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," Canada's ambassador Leslie Norton said.

The statement was backed by Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States, among others.

Beijing must allow UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and other independent observers "immediate, meaningful and unfettered access" to Xinjiang, and end the "arbitrary detention" of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, it said.

"Credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uighurs and members of other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uighur culture," it said.

The statement cited reports of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilisation, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents.

The number of signatories is an increase from the 22 ambassadors who wrote to Bachelet in 2019 condemning China's treatment of the Uighurs.

China denies mistreating the Uighurs, once a clear majority in their ancestral homeland until the state helped waves of ethnic Han Chinese migrate there. Beijing insists it is simply running vocational training centres designed to counter extremism.

Bachelet told the council on Monday she hoped at last to visit Xinjiang this year and be given "meaningful access".

Tuesday's statement was bound to further enrage Beijing, which decries what it says is the interference by foreign powers in its internal affairs.

The joint declaration also expressed concern over the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Tibet.

The move came after US President Joe Biden's first foreign trip, in which he garnered Group of Seven (G-7) and Nato unity in pushing back against Beijing, with Washington identifying China as the pre-eminent global challenge.

The statement "sends a crucial message to China's authorities that they are not above international scrutiny", said Agnes Callamard, head of the rights group Amnesty International.

But countries "must now move beyond handwringing and take real action", she added.

China's counter-attack

Aware that the statement was coming, China had responded before it was even delivered.

Beijing's representative read out a statement on behalf of a group of countries "deeply concerned about serious human rights violations against the indigenous people in Canada".

Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela were among the co-signatories, according to the United Nations.

"Historically, Canada robbed the indigenous people of their land, killed them, and eradicated their culture," the statement said.

It referenced the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in western Canada - one of many boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate Canada's indigenous peoples.

"We call for a thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against the indigenous people, especially children," the statement said.

The representative of Belarus read another joint statement on behalf of 64 countries, supporting China and stressing that Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet were Chinese internal affairs.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada had acknowledged and was seeking to make amends for wronging its indigenous peoples.

"In Canada, we had a truth and reconciliation commission," he told journalists.

"Where is China's truth and reconciliation commission. Where is their truth?

"The journey of reconciliation is a long one, but it is a journey we are on," he said.

"China is not recognising even that there is a problem.

"That is a pretty fundamental difference and that is why Canadians and people from around the world are speaking up for people like the Uighurs who find themselves voiceless, faced with a government that will not recognize what's happening to them."