Germany continues to raise concerns over human rights of the Uyghurs and demands that China close the detention camps in Xinjiang

Published: 20 October 2020 Author: Stefan Talmon

At least since 2018, Germany has repeatedly expressed concern over the human rights situation in Xinjiang, which has triggered strong rebukes from China. However, this did not prevent Germany from continuing to raise the human rights situation in China’s autonomous region in various UN bodies throughout 2020. On 30 June 2020, Germany signed up to a joint statement by 28 mainly western States at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) which read in the relevant part:

“A number of the signatories to this statement [including Germany] submitted a letter last year to express concern about arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. These deep concerns have been reinforced by additional information now in the public domain. We urge China to allow the High Commissioner meaningful access to Xinjiang at the earliest opportunity.”

As in the previous year, China, for its part, assembled a group of States to counter any statement critical of the human rights situation in Xinjiang. On 1 July 2020, Belarus delivered a statement at the Human Rights Council on behalf of 46 States, including China, which read in part:

“We reiterate that the work of the Human Rights Council should be conducted in an objective, transparent, non-selective, constructive, non-confrontational and non-politicized manner. We reaffirm our commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and our firm opposition to the practice of politicization of human rights issues and double standards.

Terrorism and extremism are common enemies to the human beings, and pose severe threats to all human rights. We note with concern that terrorism, separatism and extremism have caused enormous damage to people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang, China, and seriously infringed upon their human rights.

We note with appreciation that China has undertaken a series of measures in response to threats in accordance with the law to safeguard the human rights of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang. There was no single terrorist attack in Xinjiang in the last three years. Safety and stability have been restored in Xinjiang. Human rights of people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang have been effectively safeguarded. […].”

The human rights situation in Xinjiang returned to the agenda of the Human Rights Council at its 45th session. On 25 September 2020, the Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations in Geneva delivered the following statement on behalf of the European Union:

“On China, the EU continues to be gravely concerned about the existence of a large network of political re-education camps, widespread surveillance, and systemic restrictions on freedom of religion or belief against Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Extensively researched reports alleging forced labour, and forced sterilisation and forced birth control in Xinjiang add to the gravity and magnitude of these concerns. […] We reiterate our call on China to allow meaningful access to Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region for independent observers, including for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We also reiterate our call on China to uphold its national and international obligations, and to respect human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet.”

This time, no counter-statement in support of China was read out during the HRC session. But, the spokesperson for the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva dismissed the statement made by Germany on behalf of the EU as a “baseless allegation”, saying that Xinjiang related issues did not concern human rights but were to do with China’s sovereignty, security and unity. The spokesperson also denied any mistreating of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, stressing that the vocational centres were part of local government efforts to combat and prevent terrorism and extremism.

A few days later, the action shifted from Geneva to New York. On 6 October 2020, Germany took the lead in delivering a statement on Xinjiang at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee (on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Issues). Speaking on behalf of 39 States, Germany’s Permanent Representative, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, stated, inter alia:

“We call on China to respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet. On Xinjiang, we are gravely concerned about the existence of a large network of ‘political re-education’ camps where credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained. We have seen an increasing number of reports of gross human rights violations. There are severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association, and expression as well as on Uyghur culture. Widespread surveillance disproportionately continues to target Uyghurs and other minorities and more reports are emerging of forced labour and forced birth control including sterilization.”

In return, Cuba read out a statement on behalf of 45 States, including China, supporting China’s position and measures in Xinjiang, which was in parts identical with the statement read out by Belarus at the Human Rights Council in July. The Cuban representative concluded that on Xinjiang related issues, it was “an imperative to respect the basic facts rather than making unfounded allegations against China and interfere out of political motivations and bias.”

China resolutely opposed the “groundless accusations” delivered by Germany. On 7 October 2020, China’s Ambassador to the United Nations accused Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom of abusing the UN platform, spreading misinformation in the United Nations, politicizing the issue of human rights, provoking confrontation, and interfering in China’s internal affairs. Similar sentiments were expressed by a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Commenting on “Friendly Countries’ Joint Statements in Support of China at the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly” the spokespersons said:

“These countries appreciate that Xinjiang has taken a series of measures in accordance with law to counter the threat of terrorism and extremism and protect the human rights of the people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang. They stressed that non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states is an important principle of the UN Charter, and they firmly oppose the politicization of human rights issues and double standards, as well as groundless accusations and interference against China. […] A small number of external forces, out of ulterior motives, carry out interference in the name of human rights. […] China will not accept ‘an instructor’ on human rights and oppose double standards. We are ready to work with all parties to carry out constructive dialogue and cooperation based on the principle of equality and mutual respect and jointly contribute to the healthy development of the international human rights cause.”

Speaking to the media after the meeting, Ambassador Heusgen put particular emphasis on the fact that in comparison to last year’s 23 States, this time 39 States had joined the statement on Xinjiang in the Third Committee. He said:

“This is a clear signal that the concerns about the Chinese policy towards the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, that this concern is growing and that it is a worldwide concern […] To have 39 countries sends a signal, sends a signal to China and with this signal we combine our demand and request that China close the detention camps in Xinjiang, that China stops tearing down mosques and religious sites, that China stops forced labour, and that China also stops forced birth control.”

Germany’s representative also intimated that China had put pressure on States not to sign up to the statement and instead support the statement supporting China. This, in turn, led China to accuse the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany of using “all sorts of despicable means to pressure developing countries” to sign up to their statement and to point to the large number of States having supported China.

Another year, another set of duelling statements relating to Xinjiang at the United Nations. There is a certain danger that in the years to come, the question of which group can muster more States in support of its statement will become more important than the actual human rights situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang – human rights, however, is not a numbers game.

Category: Human rights

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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