Despite its continued repression and persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China now finds itself at the “top table” of an international human rights forum.
In a largely unheralded election last month, the UN General Assembly voted to elect a new tranche of 15 Human Rights Council (HRC) members, including China, which won a seat over objections from critics who challenge its rights record, not least against the Uyghurs.
China joins 47 other nations on the UN council and will serve for three years from January.
China faced stiff competition in the Asia-Pacific region where six nations were competing for five spots. China secured the last of the five spots as Saudi Arabia failed to cross the needed vote threshold.
Support for China at the election was actually its weakest since the council’s founding in 2006. Tallying just 139 votes, it lost the support of 41 member states from its previous election. And among the 15 countries elected to fill vacant seats in the UN Human Rights Council this year, Beijing got the fewest votes.
The decision, however, has been condemned by many, including senior German Greens MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, his group’s coordinator in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, who said, “China is among the worst and most powerful perpetrators of serious human rights violations and should have no place on the UN Human Rights Council. The Chinese leadership massively oppresses its minorities, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongolians and others.”
As per reports, it is estimated that up to 3 million Uyghurs are held in Nazi-style “concentration camps” with “insidious” pressure also being applied on those who try to champion the rights of the Uyghur community in China.
They include Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur activist, who compares the plight of Uyghurs with Jews and the Holocaust in WW2. She said: “History is repeating itself. China must be held accountable for these unspeakable crimes. If we don’t it will affect all our futures.”
“We are in the modern age and the most brutal side of human nature is manifesting itself again.”
However, pressure on China to change its ways is being intensified.
For example, the Socialists and Democrats group in the European parliament, the second biggest political grouping in the institution, has again called on the Chinese authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” release Ilham Tohti, an economist fighting for the rights of China’s Uyghur minority.
S&D MEPs say they “strongly condemn” the mass detention and prosecution of the Uyghur minority in China, adding that they are “very concerned” by the latest media report about forced birth control aiming to suppress the Muslim population in the Xinjiang province.
Socialist foreign affairs committee spokesperson, Tonino Picula, says such reports merely serve to exacerbate “long standing worries” regarding respect for human rights in China.
“We are particularly concerned regarding Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs who are massively detained without trials mainly for being Muslim.”
She goes on, “I was shocked reading media reports about forced birth control on Uyghur women as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its population. These reports are one more reason for member states to work on targeted sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for this grave violation of human rights.”
Another MEP Isabel Santos, S&D spokesperson on human rights, said: “Centres for re-education, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial executions and other human rights violations continue to exist in China. Europe cannot be indifferent or insensitive to these atrocities.”
There are numerous corroborated cases of persecution against China’s Muslim Uyghur minority and these include the case of Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur scholar who has been in jail since 2014 on separatism-related charges.
Ilham Tohti is a proponent of dialogue and an advocate for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China. In 2014, following a show trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on separatism-related charges. Despite this, he remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation.
His daughter, Jewher Ilham, who says she has not seen him since 2017, said: “Today, there is no freedom for Uyghurs in China: Not at school, not in public, not even in private homes.”
“My father, like most Uyghurs, has been labelled a violent extremist, with a disease that needs to be cured and a mind that needs to be washed. It is under this false label of extremism that the government has put one million people – probably more – into ‘concentration camps’ where Uyghurs are forced to give up their religion, language and culture, where people are tortured and some have died.”
Jewher Ilham calls for “active support” for her father’s cause. “I ask those who are listening, do you see a problem with the way the Chinese government is treating Uyghur people? If you see a problem, please work towards a solution.”
Despite continuing concern about the dire threat facing China’s Uyghur community, new evidence of China’s persecution of the Uyghurs, its 12 million strong “minority” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, continues to emerge with reports of torture, forced labour, coercive family planning (including forced abortion and forced sterilisation), sexual assault, and attempts to “Sinicise” the exercise of the Islamic faith.
China has also been accused of trying to buy the silence of majority Muslim countries around the world, including Turkey which shares not only religious but also ethnic affinity with China’s Uyghurs.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sees himself as a champion of Muslims around the world, is accused of being relatively silent when it comes to the Uyghur issue.
Pakistan is another accused of doing much the same going so far as to praise China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights”. In October, Pakistan issued a joint statement on behalf of 55 countries, opposing interference in China’s internal affairs.
Such support has been seized on by China which has refuted “groundless accusations” on its human rights record.
Asked about preventing countries with abysmal rights records from serving on the 15 Human Rights Council (HRC), UN spokesman Brenden Varma demurred, saying the responsibility for upholding human rights rests primarily with individual nations.
He added, however, that HRC membership comes with a duty to uphold high human rights standards. With China now, to the astonishment of many, a member of the HRC, all eyes will be on whether the regime in Beijing takes heed of demands to clean up its act.