Beijing Rejects UN's Criticism of Its ‘Re-Education’ Camps for Muslim Uighurs

Patrick Goodenough | August 15, 2018 | 5:06am EDT
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Uighur Muslims protest outside the United Nations in March 2018. (Screen capture: YouTube)

( – The Chinese government responded heatedly Tuesday to rare human rights criticism in a U.N. forum, hitting back at U.N. experts and media for drawing attention to the plight of ethnic minority Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, including claims that millions are being held in “re-education” camps.

A foreign ministry spokesman on Tuesday attributed the criticism to “anti-China forces” driven by “ulterior motives,” and said the “rumor and slander will turn out to be futile.”

“Certain anti-China forces have made unwarranted charges against China for political purposes, and a few overseas media smeared China’s measures to fight terrorism and crimes in Xinjiang through their distorted reports,” Lu Kang told a briefing.

The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times in an editorial also rejected the criticism – although it also sought to justify tough security provisions in the majority Muslim region, saying that “peace and stability must come above all else. With this as the goal, all measures can be tried.”

The paper said there was no doubt the current peace and stability was “partly due to the high intensity of regulations. Police and security posts can be seen everywhere in Xinjiang. But it’s a phase that Xinjiang has to go through, in rebuilding peace and prosperity.”

It also dismissed “destructive Western public opinions,” saying that in comparing the region to an open-air prison the critics were trying to stir up trouble for Xinjiang and destroy its hard-earned stability.

China is a serial member of the U.N. Human Rights Council and has never been the subject of a condemnatory HRC resolution. It is unusual for its communist government to be criticized by U.N. human rights mechanisms.

But in Geneva, an expert committee examining its rights record raised concerns about the way Muslim Uighurs in the far-western Xinjiang region are treated.

Among points raised by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination were claims that under the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism, Beijing is abusing political rights and religious freedom, through means including mass incarceration.

The committee, comprising what the U.N. calls “18 independent experts who are persons of high moral standing and acknowledged impartiality,” is tasked to oversee countries’ implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

At the beginning of a review into China’s compliance with CERD, late last week, the Xinjiang concerns were raised by Gay McDougall, an American who also serves as the committee’s vice chair.

“We are deeply concerned at the many numerous and credible reports that we have received that, in the name of combating religious extremism and maintaining social stability, [China] has turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy – a sort of ‘no-rights zone,’” she said.

McDougall said Uighurs were reportedly treated as “enemies of the state” based solely on their ethnic and religious identity.

“There are estimates that upwards of a million people are being held in so-called counter-extremism centers and another two million have been forced into so-called re-education camps, for political and cultural indoctrination,” she said.

There are 10-11 million Uighurs in Xinjiang, so according to McDougall’s claims, around one in three of them have or are being held in either counter-extremism centers or re-education camps.

‘There is no such thing’

The Chinese government, which deployed a large delegation to Geneva for the CERD review, responded as the session resumed this week.

“There is no such thing as re-education centers in Xinjiang,” delegation member Hu Lianhe told the panel, saying that the claim that the region is a “no-rights zone” is completely contrary to the facts.

“The argument that a million Uighurs are detained in re-education centers is completely untrue.”

Hu said Xinjiang was a “victim of terrorism” and the authorities have clamped down “on violent terrorist activities” in a campaign designed to secure the lives and property of all ethnic groups there.

Chinese riot police in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi. (Screen capture: YouTube, File)

Those guilty of serious offenses have been tried and imprisoned, he said, while those convicted of minor offences are assigned “to vocational, education and employment training centers, to acquire employment skills and legal knowledge, with a view to assisting in their rehabilitation and reintegration.”

At these “centers,” their legal rights are protected and they are not subjected to arbitrary detention or ill-treatment, he added.

Defending China’s decision to outlaw Muslim garb in Xinjiang – veils and burqas are prohibited as are long beards – Hu said “masked robes” were not traditional ethnic dress in Xinjiang. He also noted that they are banned in other parts of the world too. (At least five European countries restrict the wearing of burqas.)

In his response Hu made several references to what China calls the “three evils” of separatism, terrorism and extremism.

“Xinjiang has seen much presence of the three evils since the 1990s,” he said, accusing proponents of planning and carrying out attacks explosions, arson and rioting, in order to undermine stability.

Beijing has long identified as among the most dangerous exponents of the so-called three evils individuals such as the exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Khadeer.

Uighurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims whose traditional homeland was briefly independent as East Turkistan in the 1930s and 40s, but fell under communist Chinese rule in 1949.

The resource-rich region is China’s largest administrative division, accounting for about one-sixth of the country’s territory.

Uighurs are still the majority there, but millions of ethnic Han Chinese have relocated into the region, and now comprise almost 40 percent of the region’s population, compared to 46 percent Uighurs.

Uighur campaigners say the Han settlement and restrictions on Uighur culture, religion and language are an attempt to assimilate them.

In 2002, the U.S. designated the separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) under an executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists.

But the U.S. has also long accused China of using counterterrorism as a pretext for repression against Uighurs, whether or not they support radicals.

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