Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council

More than 40 countries led by Canada voiced grave concerns at the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday about China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet — triggering a fierce backlash from Beijing.

The widely anticipated joint statement had been in the pipeline for several days and was delivered on day two of the 47th session of the council in Geneva.

“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Canada’s ambassador Leslie Norton said.

The statement was backed by Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States, among others.

Beijing must allow UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and other independent observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang, and end the “arbitrary detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, it said.

“Credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uyghurs and members of other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uyghur culture,” it said.

The statement cited reports of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilisation, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents.

The number of signatories is an increase from the 22 ambassadors who wrote to Bachelet in 2019 condemning China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.

China denies mistreating the Uyghurs — once a clear majority in their ancestral homeland until waves of state-backed migration of ethnic Han Chinese — and insists it is simply running vocational training centres designed to counter extremism.

Bachelet told the council on Monday that she hoped at last to visit Xinjiang this year and be given “meaningful access”.

In a move that was bound to further enrage Beijing, which decries what it says is the interference by foreign powers in its internal affairs, the statement added the group’s concerns over the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Tibet.

The move came after US President Joe Biden’s first foreign trip, in which he garnered G7 and NATO unity in pushing back against Beijing, with Washington identifying China as the pre-eminent global challenge.

Agnes Callamard, head of the human rights group Amnesty International, said the statement “sends a crucial message to China’s authorities that they are not above international scrutiny.” 

Countries “must now move beyond handwringing and take real action”, she said.

– China’s counter-attack –

Aware that the statement was coming, China responded — before it was delivered.

Beijing’s representative read out a statement on behalf of a group of countries “deeply concerned about serious human rights violations against the indigenous people in Canada”.

Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela were among the other signatories, according to the United Nations.

“Historically, Canada robbed the indigenous people of their land, killed them, and eradicated their culture,” the statement said.

It referenced the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in western Canada — one of many boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate Canada’s indigenous peoples.

“We call for a thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against the indigenous people, especially children,” the statement said.

The representative of Belarus read another joint statement on behalf of 64 countries, supporting China and stressing that Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet were Chinese internal affairs.

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