“We call on China to refrain from arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang”; demand in a letter. China rejects move terms letter as slander

Nation special report

NEW YORK: Believing in human rights and freedom, 22 countries have demanded  China to stop its mass detention of Uighur Muslims by 22 members of the United Nations Human Rights Council in the first such joint move on the issue. The UN says at least 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained by China in the western region of Xinjiang.

In an unprecedented letter ambassadors from 22 countries voiced their concerns about reports of unlawful detention in “large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang”.

Britain, France and Germany were among the European nations to join the call, along with Australia, Canada and Japan, but not the United States, which quit the council a year ago, the Independent has reported.

However, the letter fell short of activists demands for a formal statement to be read out at the council, or a resolution submitted for a vote.

The letter to the forum’s president, dated 8 July, cited China’s obligations as a member of the 47-state forum to maintain the highest standards. “We call on China to uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief in Xinjiang and across China,” the letter said.

“We call also on China to refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”

It urged China to allow international independent experts, including Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, “meaningful access” to Xinjiang.

Ms Bachelet, a former president of Chile, has lobbied China to grant the UN access to investigate reports of disappearances and arbitrary detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang.

Last month, China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva said he hoped Ms Bechelet would take up an invitation to visit.

One diplomat told Reuters China’s delegation was “hopping mad” at the move and was preparing its own letter in response.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch welcomed the letter as “important not only for Xinjiang’s population, but for people around the world who depend on the UN’s leading rights body to hold even the most powerful countries to account”.

At the start of the three-week session, which ends on Friday, the vice-governor of Xinjiang responded to international condemnation of the state-run detention camps by saying they were vocational centres which had helped “save” people from extremist influences.

Last week, a study said thousands of Muslim children in the region were being separated from their parents in what it called a “systematic campaign of social re-engineering and cultural genocide”.

China’s reaction

China on Thursday labelled as “slander” a letter sent to top United Nations officials by 22 countries condemning Beijing’s treatment of ethnic minorities. An estimated one million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are held in internment camps in the northwest region of Xinjiang — a system that Beijing defends as necessary to counter religious extremism and terrorism.

The UN letter “attacks, slanders, and has unwarranted accusations against China,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang at a regular press briefing in Beijing.

“It is a public politicisation of human rights issues and wantonly interferes in China’s internal affairs,” he added.

Since last October, the local government has also organised tours of the camps for diplomats and media outlets.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has requested a fact-finding mission to Xinjiang and China has extended an open invitation for her to visit the region.n But the international official typically only undertakes such national visits provided the host government offers guarantees on certain conditions — including unfettered access to key sites.

Beijing was also forced on Thursday to defend its human rights record from criticism by Slovakia and Britain. Slovak president Zuzana Caputova warned of a “deteriorating human rights situation” to Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, while British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt took aim at the jailing of activists and said countries that abuse journalists should pay a “diplomatic price”.

Geng warned that Hunt, who is hoping to become prime minister, should not “use China” as a way to campaign for votes and noted Wang had outlined China’s “tremendous progress” in human rights, ethnic minority, and religious policies during his meeting with Caputova.