China denied such actions when a UN human rights committee questioned the policy last year but later said it was providing vocational training to insulate Xinjiang’s population from what it described as the global scourge of extremism.
To counter international critics, last month China brought Xinjiang’s deputy governor, an ethnic Uighur, to the council, where he asserted that such training is lifting Xinjiang’s people from poverty. The deputy governor, Aierken Tuniyazi, also rejected accusations that the trainees were in detention camps and said China had now effectively contained terrorism and religious extremism in Xinjiang.
“The trainees’ personal dignity and freedom are fully protected,” he said, describing students living in air-conditioned dormitories and dividing their time between learning valuable skills and participating in ethnic dancing, singing or sports.
The United States has led criticism of China’s treatment of Uighurs and led a joint statement condemning China’s treatment of lawyers and human rights activists in the Human Rights Council in 2016. But the US withdrew from the council a year ago and did not sign the letter.
Diplomats said there was little prospect of another country leading a resolution in the council and exposing itself to the political and economic retaliation China often threatens against states that criticise it, especially in prominent forums.
The joint letter, on the contrary, had no obvious coordinator or sponsor, making it difficult for China to single out a particular signer for retribution. Diplomats said the letter provided a less risky but nonetheless effective way for states to express indignation over China’s measures in Xinjiang.
“It is a first collective response on Xinjiang,” a Western diplomat said. “The idea of a resolution was never on the cards.”
Another envoy said: “It’s a formal step because it will be published as an official document of the Council … It is a signal.”
There was no immediate comment from China on the letter, but diplomats said China’s envoys in Geneva were preparing a counter-letter. Human rights activists welcomed it.
“The joint statement demonstrates that Beijing is wrong to think it can escape international scrutiny for its abuses in Xinjiang, and the pressure will only increase until these appalling abuses end,” John Fisher, director of Human Rights Watch’s Geneva office, said in a statement.
“Governments are increasingly recognising the suffering of millions of people in Xinjiang, with families torn apart and living in fear, and a Chinese state that believes it can commit mass violations uncontested,” he said.
The letter also called on China to allow “meaningful access” to Xinjiang for Bachelet and other independent international observers.
Bachelet, a former president of Chile, has pushed China to grant the United Nations access to investigate reports of disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly of Muslims in Xinjiang.
China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said last month that he hoped Bachelet would take up an invitation to visit. A UN spokeswoman said at the time that the trip, including “full access to Xinjiang”, was under discussion.
The New York Times, Reuters