China, Which Incarcerates Millions of Uighurs, Gets Seat on UN Forum for Indigenous Peoples

Patrick Goodenough | May 8, 2019 | 4:24am EDT
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(Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

( – U.N. member-states on Tuesday handed China a seat on a forum on indigenous peoples, despite objections by the United States, which drew delegates’ attention to the communist government’s incarceration of millions of ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities in prison camps.

Beijing got the seat on the 16-member Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) for the three-year period beginning Jan. 1, 2020 “by acclamation” – that is, it was “elected” without a recorded vote – as it was the only candidate put forward by the Asia group.

Before that decision was formalized, U.S. representative Courtney Nemroff questioned the appropriateness of China getting a seat on a body tasked to uphold the rights and cultures of indigenous peoples, and called on all member-states to bear in mind China’s record.

She noted that Chinese diplomats had during a just-completed session of the PFII repeatedly tried to “undermine” and “stifle the voice” of a Uighur representative, Dolkun Isa of the World Uyghur Congress.

“The Chinese Communist Party has exhibited extreme hostility to organized religion since its founding,” Nemroff said.

“The United States is alarmed that more than a million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims have suffered arbitrary detention, forced labor, torture, and death in camps in China’s Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region.”

Those atrocities, she said, were “irreconcilable with the PFII’s mandate to uphold the rights of indigenous peoples and advance respect for their cultures.”

A Chinese delegate then accused Nemroff of defaming China, and said Isa – “the so-called Uighur person” – has been designated as a terrorist by the Chinese government.

During the earlier PFII session, Isa last Wednesday accused Beijing of mass incarceration of Uighurs and other minorities, with millions held in camps and the children of those detained placed in government-run orphanages. China was targeting their religion, language and culture, he charged.

After China’s PFII delegate complained about the participation of a “terrorist,” Nemroff spoke in support of Isa.

“The fact that he is critical of China’s policy does not make him a terrorist,” she said. “If Dolkun Isa were a terrorist, he would not have been given access to the United Nations, nor would he be granted a U.S. visa or German citizenship.”

Isa’s advocacy has long angered Beijing, which with varying levels of success sought to block his participation at previous PFII sessions. U.S. officials say that despite requests the Chinese have never provided “actionable intelligence” backing up their claim that he is a terrorist.

Isa, who fled China in 1994, holds German citizenship and the U.S. has issued him with a 10-year, multiple-entry visa.

‘Concentration camps’

Beijing says the camps in Xinjiang, the vast region of western China that is home to some 13 million Uighurs, are vocational and educational institutions.

“China has taken preventive anti-terrorism and de-radicalization measures that are entirely lawful, which respect and protect human rights and have won extensive support from people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a briefing early last week.

Dolkun Isa of the World Uyghur Congress speaks at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on May 1, 2019. (Screen capture: U.N. Webcast)

In its recent annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) singled out China for particularly severe violations – targeting not just Uighurs, but also Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and others.

“As a Muslim – particularly an ethnic Uighur Muslim – you may be forcibly sent to a concentration camp where you are held against your will and subjected to unspeakable acts of abuse and alleged torture, all while authorities pressure you to abandon your faith,” it said.

Geng at the time gave both the USCIRF and its allegations short shrift.

“The so-called commission you mentioned, with its entrenched political bias against China, has been denigrating China's religious policy in its reports for many years,” Geng said. “Its absurd claims are not even worth refuting.”

While the USCIRF is an independent statutory body, on Friday a senior Pentagon official also used the term “concentration camps” to describe the detention facilities in Xinjiang.

“The Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps,” Assistant Defense Secretary for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver told reporters.

Asked about the terminology he used, Schriver said that given the numbers of people being held, what is happening in the camps, and the Chinese government’s goals, it was “a very, I think, appropriate description.”

At Monday’s foreign ministry press briefing, Geng called Schriver’s comments “gross interference in China’s internal affairs.”

“Residents in Xinjiang enjoy a happy life with stability, economic development and social harmony,” he said. “The vocational and educational training institutions there were set up as a preventive approach to combat terrorism. Relevant measures were taken entirely according to law, which are endorsed and supported by people of all ethnic groups and have produced positive social effects.”

See earlier stories:

State Dept.: 800K to 2 Million Muslims Forced Into 'Internment Camps' in Communist China (Mar. 19, 2019)
Up to Two Million Uighurs Incarcerated in Chinese Camps; Islamic Bloc Silent (Dec. 6, 2018)
Tempers Flare as US, China Clash at UN Over Campaigner Beijing Calls ‘Terrorist’ (May 24, 2018)

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