Germany raises concerns over human rights situation in Xinjiang

Published: 15 October 2020 Author: Stefan Talmon

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwest China is the country’s largest administrative region, making up one sixth of Chinese territory. The region was first officially named “Xinjiang” – which literally means “New Borderlands” – and given the status of a provincial administrative area by the Chinese Emperor in 1764. It borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Its geographic location gives it a strategic position in Central Asia. In recent years, oil and mineral reserves have been found in Xinjiang which make it China’s largest natural gas-producing region. With only some 25 million inhabitants, it is sparsely populated. The region’s native population is the Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking mainly Muslim ethnic group, which is culturally and ethnically close to other Central Asian nations. Initially the predominant majority population, today it makes up only some 45 percent of the inhabitants. Over time, more and more Han Chinese moved to the region, who today account for at least 40 percent of the population. The rest is made up by several other, smaller ethnic groups. This has led to inter-ethnic tensions.

Over the last one hundred years, the ethnic Uyghurs rose several times against Chinese rule and there were two unsuccessful attempts to establish an independent Uyghur State in parts of Xinjiang. On 12 November 1933, the “Turkish Islamic Republic of East Turkestan” (TIRET) was proclaimed in the city of Kashgar. However, the TIRET was short-lived and collapsed after less than three months when the city was retaken by Chinese government troops in February 1934. In 1940, a new rebellion against Chinese rule started. The rebels called for an end to Chinese rule, equality for all nationalities, recognised use of native languages, friendly relations with the Soviet Union, and opposition to Chinese immigration into Xinjiang. On 12 November 1944, a second “East Turkestan Republic” (ETR) was established in northern Xinjiang with Soviet assistance. However, on 15 June 1946 the leadership of the ETR reached an agreement with the Kuomintang’s central government of China to dissolve the ETR and join the Xinjiang Provincial Coalition Government. Despite Xinjiang becoming an autonomous region of China in 1955, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), or Turkestan Islamic Party, and other ethnic Uyghur separatist groups are fighting for an independent Uyghur State of East Turkistan in the territory of Xinjiang. Since the 1990s, the ETIM has been responsible for several violent attacks both in Xinjiang and in other parts of China. On 11 September 2002, the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1267 (1999) designated the ETIM as a terrorist organization associated with Usama bin Laden and the Al-Qaida organization.

Religious, cultural, and ethnic differences between the Uyghur and Han Chinese have been the main drivers of separatism in Xinjiang and have resulted in protest and occasional terrorist attacks. The Chinese authorities have not always distinguished between legitimate political dissent and terrorist activity, and have treated religious practices and peaceful political activism as terrorism, extremism, and separatism. In recent years, the situation of the Uyghur population has deteriorated markedly. In particular, it was reported that up to a million ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities were being held in “counter-extremism training centres” and “re-education training centres” for political and cultural indoctrination. This led Germany and other countries to express serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang. During the general debate at the Human Rights Council on 18 September 2018, the German representative stated:

“Germany remains deeply concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in China, in particular the plight of Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities, including Tibetans, who suffer from systematic discrimination. In Xinjiang, hundreds of thousands of people have been detained in so called re-education camps. We witness massive infringements on the freedoms of religion, expression, and the right to a fair trial. We call on China to immediately close all re-education camps, release all human rights defenders […] and to fully cooperate with the UN Special Procedures.”

During the universal periodic review of the human rights situation in China in November 2018, Germany recommended the People’s Republic of China (PRC), inter alia:

“● End all unlawful detention including unconstitutional mass detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, and residential surveillance at a designated location;

● Respect the rights to freedom of religion and belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and culture – also for Tibetans, Uyghurs and other minorities; […]

● Allow independent observers – including Special Procedures, – unhindered access to all regions.”

On 8 November 2018, Germany’s Federal Parliament debated a motion by the Green Party entitled “Ending, Investigating and Punishing Serious Human Rights Violations in Xinjiang”. This triggered an official statement from the Chinese Embassy in Berlin, which read, in part, as follows:

“On 8 November, the so-called human rights situation in the Chinese province of Xinjiang was discussed in Germany’s Federal Parliament, despite the strong objection from the Chinese side. The Chinese side is extremely dissatisfied with this and is making serious demarches to the Federal Parliament and the Federal Government.

Xinjiang is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China, and matters relating to Xinjiang are within the jurisdiction and form part of the internal affairs of China. The arbitrary allegations by the Federal Parliament, disregarding the reality in Xinjiang, against Chinese measures to combat terrorism and extremism, as well as Chinese policies on nationalities and human rights, represent a blatant interference in internal affairs and a gross violation of China’s sovereignty. […]

Germany and China have very different histories and cultures, and the understanding of human rights is not the same. China wants to conduct a dialogue with Germany on the basis of equality and mutual respect in order to achieve a better mutual understanding. But China is resolutely resisting the politicization and instrumentalization of human rights and the interference in the internal affairs of other countries. This is also a violation of international rules. […].”

On 15 November 2018, it was reported that the German Ambassador to China had joined 14 other western ambassadors in writing a letter to the Communist Party Secretary in the XUAR, which read in part:

“We are deeply troubled by reports of the treatment of ethnic minorities, in particular individuals of Uyghur ethnicity, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In order to better understand the situation, we request a meeting with you at your earliest convenience to discuss these concerns.”

The letter was copied to China’s Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Public Security and the Communist Party’s international department. Commenting on the letter, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated:

“If these ambassadors want to go to Xinjiang with goodwill, of course we welcome that. But if they want to go there to pressure the local government, then that would be problematic. Besides, that would also exceed their mandate under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. An ambassador is supposed to promote the mutual understanding, mutual trust and cooperation between the receiving state and the sending state, rather than raise unreasonable requests and interfere in the internal affairs of the receiving state based on hearsay. […] I see no reason why they are concerned about the situation in Xinjiang and why they try to pressure the Chinese side by raising these demands in a co-signed letter. I think what they have done is very rude and unacceptable.”

In 2019, Germany and other western States continued to raise concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang. On 2 July 2019, during closed-door consultations of the Security Council on the United Nation’s Central Asia preventive diplomacy work, Germany and the United States reportedly criticized China for detaining more than one million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims and depriving them of their rights. This triggered a strong rebuke from the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson who declared:

“First, Xinjiang affairs are purely China’s internal affairs, which are totally unrelated to the Security Council agenda and brook no foreign interference. Second, the Security Council is a solemn body upholding international peace and security. It is not and should not become a political theatre of certain countries. We urge relevant countries to discard the double standards, abide by basic rules of international meetings, stop sabotaging Security Council solidarity and stop interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs.”

The Chinese rebuke, however, did not prevent Germany later from joining 21 other States, mainly from the European Union, in raising the human rights situation in Xinjiang again only a few days. On 8 July 2019, these States address a letter to the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stating:

“We, the co-signatories to this letter, are concerned about credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, China. […]

We call on China to uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China. We call also on China to refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang. […].”

In their unprecedented move, the States also called on China to cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN experts to allow meaningful access to the region. China was strongly dissatisfied with the letter. On 11 July 2019, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson urged the signatory countries “to respect facts, reject bias, stay committed to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, and stop politicizing the issue of human rights and interfering in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues.” With regard to the situation in Xinjiang, the spokesperson explained:

“As we repeatedly emphasized, Xinjiang affairs are China’s internal affairs. They are a matter of China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity. On Xinjiang-related issues, no one is in a better position to judge than the Chinese government and people. They brook no foreign interference. Faced with severe threats of terrorism and extremism, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has taken a series of counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures according to law, including the establishment of vocational education and training centres. Those measures have turned the situation around. In the past more than two years, not a single violent and terrorist incident took place in Xinjiang. The region now enjoys social stability and unity among all ethnic groups.”

However, China did not limit its reaction to public statements of protest and diplomatic demarches, but brought together a group of 37 States, mostly from Africa and the Middle East and one European Country – Serbia – that supported its policies in Xinjiang. In a letter to the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights these States declared on 12 July 2019:

“We, the co-signatories to this letter, reiterate that the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) should be conducted in an objective, transparent, nonselective, constructive, non-confrontational and non-politicized manner. We express our firm opposition to relevant countries’ practice of politicizing human rights issues, by naming and shaming, and publicly exerting pressures on other countries. […]

We take note that terrorism, separatism and religious extremism has caused enormous damage to people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang, which has seriously infringed upon human rights, including right to life, health and development. Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centres. Now safety and security has returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded. The past three consecutive years has seen not a single terrorist attack in Xinjiang and people there enjoy a stronger sense of happiness, fulfilment and security. We note with appreciation that human rights are respected and protected in China in the process of counter-terrorism and deradicalization.”

On 15 July 2019, the spokesperson for the Chinse Foreign Ministry expressed appreciation and thanked the countries “for their fair and objective stance.”

Three and a half months later, it became clear that these letters were just the first act in what should become a battle of the statements on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. On 29 October 2019, the venue shifted from Geneva to New York, when the permanent representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations delivered a “statement on Xinjiang” on behalf of 23 mainly western States, including Germany, in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly. The statement read in part:

“We share the concerns […] regarding credible reports of mass detention; efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices; mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uighurs; and other human rights violations and abuses in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

We call on the Chinese government to uphold its national laws and international obligations and commitments to respect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China. The Chinese government should urgently implement CERD’s eight recommendations related to Xinjiang, including by refraining from the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and members of other Muslim communities.”

This time round, China was better prepared, having assembled in advance a group of States to counter the above statement. During the same meeting of the Third Committee, Belarus read a statement on behalf of 54 States, including China, taking note “that terrorism, separatism and religious extremism has caused enormous damage to people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang, which has seriously infringed upon human rights, including right to life, health and development.” The countries expressed their strong opposition to

“the politicization of human rights issues by certain countries, through naming and shaming and public pressure on other countries. The measures taken by China to combat terrorism and radicalization in Xinjiang, including the establishment of vocational education and training centres, were commendable, having led to the return of safety and security, while safeguarding the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups.”

In addition, the Chinese representative rebuked the western States for making “baseless accusations against his country, which constituted gross interference in its internal affairs and a deliberate provocation.”

The statements on the human rights situation in Xinjiang and China’s reaction thereto reveal a markedly different understanding of human rights. For China, how the State conducts itself within its own borders is purely an internal affair. This is probably still the view of the majority of States, especially if criticized by other States for human rights violations of their own people. For Germany and a (small) number of Western States, on the other hand, human rights obligations are owed to the international community as a whole; that is, they are obligations erga omnes, which means that human rights violations anywhere are of concern to States everywhere. Against the background of its own history, Germany feels compelled to speak up for human rights and to raise concerns over human rights violations. As long as this is not done selectively or for ulterior purposes, there is no question of a “politicization” of human rights. Raising with a State a violation of its international human rights obligations does not call into question respect for the independence and sovereignty of that State. It is simply an invocation of that State’s international responsibility. Whether such “naming and shaming” of States is a productive way of protecting human rights is another question.

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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