Uyghur re­gion a ‘no-rights zone,’ UN com­mit­tee says

Bei­jing is ac­cused of turning Xin­jiang into some­thing sim­i­lar to a mass ‘in­tern­ment camp’


A United Na­tions com­mit­tee de­liv­ered a sharp re­buke to China on Friday for its treat­ment of Uyghurs, ac­cus­ing Bei­jing of turning its sprawl­ing western Xin­jiang re­gion into “a no-rights zone.”

Gay McDougall, vice-chair of the Com­mit­tee on the Elim­i­na­tion of Racial Dis­crim­i­na­tion, said she is “deeply con­cerned” by re­ports that China, un­der the guise of com­bat­ing re­li­gious ex­trem­ism, “has turned the [Xin­jiang] Uyghur Au­tonomous Re­gion into some­thing that re­sem­bles a mas­sive in­tern­ment camp.”

Some Uyghurs – a largely Mus­lim eth­nic mi­nor­ity – “are be­ing treated as ene­mies of the state based solely on their ethno-re­li­gious iden­tity,” said Ms. McDougall, a lawyer and scholar of in­ter­na­tional law who was the first UN in­de­pen­dent ex­pert on mi­nor­ity is­sues.

She crit­i­cized China for plac­ing Uyghurs into so-called “re-ed­u­ca­tion” as part of a broad cam­paign that has placed hun­dreds of thou­sands of Xin­jiang Mus­lims into in­tern­ment camps. Nu­mer­ous oth­ers, she said, are be­ing held in coun­terex­trem­ism cen­tres.

“All of these de­tainees have had their due-process rights vi­o­lated. Most have never been charged with an of­fence, tried in a court of law or af­forded an op­por- tu­nity to chal­lenge the il­le­gal­ity of their de­ten­tion. Many just dis­ap­pear. Their rel­a­tives never know what hap­pened to them,” she said.

Ms. McDougall’s com­ments are among the most strongly worded con­dem­na­tions to date by an in­ter­na­tional body of the sit­u­a­tion in Xin­jiang, where in­tern­ment camps for po­lit­i­cal in­doc­tri­na­tion have pro­lif­er­ated since 2017.

Chi­nese of­fi­cials have de­nied the ex­is­tence of such fa­cil­i­ties, although their con­struc­tion has been con­firmed through gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment doc­u­ments and satel­lite im­ages.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, in a lengthy sub­mis­sion to the com­mit­tee, pointed to its eco­nomic achieve­ments in Xin­jiang, a re­gion Uyghurs re­fer to as East Turkestan.

Xin­jiang’s per capita GDP more than dou­bled be­tween 2008 and 2015, while its dis­pos­able in­come last year showed “the fastest growth of any­where in the coun­try,” the Chi­nese re­port states. The re­gion is China’s top pro­ducer of cot­ton and among its largest sources of wool, cash­mere and milk, it adds. It also says all peo­ple charged with a crime in Xin­jiang and neigh­bour­ing Ti­bet are en­sured of a fair trial.

“The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment re­spects and pro­tects the free­dom of re­li­gious be­liefs as well as the cus­toms of Mus­lims,” the re­port states.

Nu­mer­ous Uyghurs have told The Globe and Mail that Mus­lims in Xin­jiang are taken to in­tern­ment cen­tres with­out trial or for­mal charges. Schol­ars es­ti­mate hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple are in those cen­tres; Ms. McDougall placed the num­ber at two mil­lion, although she of­fered no source for that fig­ure. Uyghurs in Xin­jiang have also told The Globe they face se­vere re­li­gious re­stric­tions: Long beards are banned for younger men, fam­i­lies can­not have Ko­rans in their homes and the pres­ence of re­li­gious ma­te­rial on smart­phones can be grounds for forced re-ed­u­ca­tion.

The re­view of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in China raised ques­tions about the coun­try’s treat­ment of North Korean refugees, bias against mi­nori­ties in the work­place, ha­rass­ment and in­tim­i­da­tion of hu­man-rights lawyers and im­po­si­tion of Man­darin in­struc­tion to the ex­clu­sion of other lan­guages.

Sev­eral com­mit­tee mem­bers flat­tered China for im­prove­ments it has made in laws gov­ern­ing rights for mi­nori­ties, although they ques­tioned whether changes on pa­per made much dif­fer­ence on the ground.

Some of the sharpest queries were re­lated to Xin­jiang, where China’s treat­ment of Uyghurs has be­gun to at­tract global at­ten­tion. U.S. Se­na­tor Marco Ru­bio, in a Wall Street Journal ar­ti­cle on Friday, called for sanc­tions against Xin­jiang party sec­re­tary Chen Quan­guo and com­pa­nies “as­sist­ing the mass de­ten­tions and sur­veil­lance,” a cam­paign he called “evil.”

At the com­mit­tee ses­sion, mem­ber Yemhelhe Mint Mo­hamed asked: “What is the level of re­li­gious free­dom avail­able to Uyghurs now in China? What le­gal pro­tec­tion ex­ists for them to prac­tise their re­li­gion?”

China’s lead rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the com­mit­tee, Yu Jian­hua, said he would re­spond on Mon­day. “We have taken care­ful notes,” he said.


A Chi­nese flag flies over a mosque that was closed by au­thor­i­ties as a woman sells bread at her bak­ery in June, 2017, in the old town of Kash­gar, in China’s western re­gion of Xin­jiang.

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