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China’s UPR: Will Concerns Raised over Ethnic and Religious Repression Lead to Accountability?

November 6, 2018

China’s continued repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet and acts in blatant violation of religious and cultural rights and freedoms protected under international law remained a focus of the concerns raised by many states during the Universal Periodic Review of China at the UN Human Rights Council (Geneva, November 6). Though only 24 governments articulated these concerns—or just over 15 percent of the 153 states that spoke during the session—they, including the world’s major democracies such as the U.S., Germany, and Japan, did so in clear and emphatic terms in statements and recommendations.

“These statements send a hopeful signal that at least some governments are taking this UN process seriously and used this high-level platform to very publicly tell China to stop actions that are in clear violation of international law,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China. “But the question of whether states have the political courage to hold a principled line and press for accountability in the face of China’s continuous assertion of fake facts and alternate realities remains.”

At least two governments—the United States and France—referred to the Chinese authorities’ actions against ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang as “mass internment,” consistent with the picture that has emerged in mounting and credible reports over the past year that an estimated 1 million Muslims in Xinjiang have been taken into camps. The statements included the following (excerpted and transcribed by HRIC of oral statements delivered in English or interpreted):

We are alarmed by the government of China’s worsening crackdown on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. We recommend that China: (1) Abolish all forms of arbitrary detention including internment camps in Xinjiang, and immediately release the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of individuals detained in these camps. . . . (United States)

We are deeply concerned by credible reports of the mass detention, repression, and surveillance of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. . . . (Canada)

All the government’s policies and activities such as ethnic profiling not in compliance with China’s international human rights obligations should be discontinued and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief be allowed to visit the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region . . . . (Finland)

. . . [P]ut an end to mass internments in camps, and invite the OHCHR and special procedures. We also recommend guaranteeing freedom of religion and belief including in Tibet and in Xinjiang . . . . (France)

1. End all unlawful detention including unconstitutional mass detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang . . . ; 2.  Respect the rights of freedom of religion and belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and culture, also for Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other minorities. . . .  (Germany)

 . . . [P]olitical and civil rights have deteriorated, including increased restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, association, expression, and religion or belief.  We’re very concerned about the treatment of ethnic minorities including Uyghurs and Tibetans. . . . (United Kingdom)

During the session, as in recent government statements, the Chinese delegation defended the camps as training institutions. During the review today, Yasheng Sidike (牙生·司地克), the mayor of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and a member of the Chinese delegation, said:

[T]hese training centers have been welcomed by the attendees. After graduation, they can acquire 1 to 2 vocational skills and they can have good remuneration through labor by piecework wage on top of their basic wage, and they say they have received good protection. Some attendees say they were influenced by extremist thoughts and they never took part in culture and sports activities. They never thought life could be so colorful and so meaningful.

But accounts by the relatives of those affected tell a different story. Dolkun Isa, a Uyghur activist based in Germany, said in interview recently that his 78-year-old mother died in a camp, a fact that he did not find out until six months later—because anyone who dared to contact him would risk being detained. Gulchehra Hoja, a Uyghur journalist working for Radio Free Asia, has said on many different occasions that more than 20 of her relatives, including her brother, have been detained. And James Palmer, senior editor of Foreign Policy, described in a recent panel discussion how his Uyghur sources in Xinjiang first stopped speaking on record, and later were not heard from again.

“The magnitude of the gap between facts told in photos and personal and press accounts, and the embroidered fiction that China is trying to sell to the world is just staggering,” Hom said. “But unfortunately, the latter is what a lot of states choose to accept—or tell China they accept. For them, the naked truth is just inconvenient.”

As in the past two UPRs of China, many like-minded states and those receiving sizeable infrastructure investments from China applauded China’s human rights “progress” and requested China share its successful model from which they can learn.

States willing to speak up also raised concerns over and offered recommendations regarding long-standing deficits in China’s ability to fulfill its international human rights obligations, including tight censorship online and offline, state actions designed to impede the growth of a safe and enabling civil society, the crackdown on lawyers and legal advocates, reprisals on human rights defenders who attempt to participate in international human rights processes, and the long overdue ratification of the key International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

One government alone, Australia, addressed the foundational challenge by China of the  international human rights system—a challenge that, if unmet, would  lead to the unraveling of the system itself and fuel a human rights crisis around the world that the system has been designed to forestall. In its advance questions to China, but not articulated during the session, Australia asked:

Does China still accept the principle of universal human rights, and if not, can China explain how its conception of human rights fits into the international human rights regime built on the concept of universality? Can China explain how “human rights with Chinese characteristics” differs from universal human rights, and if it does not, why it wishes to introduce this distinction?  (Advance Questions by UN Member States)

The draft Working Group report of China’s UPR will be released and presented for adoption on November 9 by the Human Rights Council.  But the Human Rights Council and the UN’s responsibility to ensure the accountability of each member state such as China and its compliance with international obligations does not end with the conclusion of the China’s third UPR. UN human rights mechanisms such as treaty bodies and special procedures, as well as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, will need to use their mandates to prevent further erosion of the values and core principles on which this system is built.

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