1 Sep 2022

UN report on claims of abuse against Uyghurs: Nanaia Mahuta calls on China to respond

9:02 pm on 1 September 2022
Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says China needs to uphold its international human rights obligations. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

A long-awaited UN report into allegations of human rights abuses in China's Xinjiang is "deeply concerning", Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says.

More than a million people are estimated to have been detained at camps in the Xinjiang region, in north-east China.

After visiting the region in May, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet today released the report, which assesses claims of abuse against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

Its publication followed pressure from China for it not to be released - with Beijing calling it a "farce" arranged by the US and Western powers.

Investigators said they found "credible evidence" of torture possibly amounting to "crimes against humanity". But Beijing denied allegations of abuse and argued the camps were a tool to fight terrorism.

In a statement on Thursday evening, Mahuta called on China to uphold its international human rights obligations and respond to the concerns and the recommendations raised in the report.

The New Zealand government had been consistent in raising "grave concerns" regarding the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, she said.

"We are particularly concerned about the report's conclusions regarding arbitrary detention, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, forced medical treatment, widespread surveillance, violations of reproductive rights, restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, and forced labour."

Buildings believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Kashgar in China's northwestern Xinjiang region (pictured on on June 2, 2019). Photo:

Aotearoa New Zealand had a strong history of protecting and promoting human rights, which was an "integral part" of the country's independent foreign policy, she said.

"As a committed proponent of universal human rights, we will continue to speak out when we see human rights under threat, in line with our interests and values."

The government will be considering all the details in the report to determine any next steps.

Several countries previously described China's actions as a genocide, but the UN stopped short of making that accusation.

China has always insisted that Uyghur militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage and civic unrest, but it is accused of exaggerating the threat in order to justify repression of the Uyghurs.

What the UN report has found

The report accused China of using vague national security laws to clamp down on the rights of minorities and establishing "systems of arbitrary detention".

It said prisoners had been subjected to "patterns of ill-treatment" which included "incidents of sexual and gender-based violence".

Others, they said, faced forced medical treatment and "discriminatory enforcement of family planning and birth control policies".

The UN recommended that China immediately takes steps to release "all individuals arbitrarily deprived of their liberty" and suggested that some of Beijing's actions could amount to the "commission of international crimes, including crimes against humanity".

There are about 12 million Uyghurs, mostly Muslim, living in Xinjiang. The UN said non-Muslim members may have also been affected by the issues in the report.

Police patrolling as Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after the morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in the town of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang region on June 26, 2017. Photo:

What the reaction has been

The World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella group representing about 60 organisations, welcomed the report and urged a swift international response.

"This is a game-changer for the international response to the Uyghur crisis," Uyghur Human Rights Project executive director Omer Kanat said.

"Despite the Chinese government's strenuous denials, the UN has now officially recognised that horrific crimes are occurring."

Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson said the report's findings showed "why the Chinese government fought tooth and nail to prevent the publication" of the report.

Amnesty International's Secretary General Agnès Callamard condemned "the inexcusable delay" in publishing the findings.

"There must be accountability for the Chinese government's crimes against humanity, including through the identification and eventual prosecution of those individuals suspected of responsibility," Callamard said.

On the other hand, National Party foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee told Midday Report it was good that the report acknowledged that there was a terrorism problem in the particular part of China that it focused on.

Anti-terrorism laws in China were not dissimilar to those in New Zealand and in many other parts of the world, he said.

National MP Gerry Brownlee

National Party foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"I think it's the implementation of those laws and the consequences for people who are caught up in that that is the issue here."

Brownlee said he hoped China would engage appropriately to look at the report's recommendations.

New Zealand needed to encourage China to recognise its importance as a Security Council member, he said.

"In any of these reports there will be recommendations that governments will reject, there'll be others that they think 'okay we can have a look at it'.

"I think the recognition by the report that they are dealing with a terrorist problem essentially is helpful in getting some sort of a better arrangement for people whose human rights are being constrained."

China was a country with 1.4 billion people and the report dealt with a discussion about one province there and it would be a somewhat excessive step for New Zealand to cut contact or trade ties with China on the basis of the report, Brownlee said.

"I think continuing to make the statements that we do whenever we have the opportunities, that we don't condone the lack of human rights that are being exhibited in provinces like Xinjiang - but recognise too that they're a country dealing with a problem internally and that the starting point is not dissimilar to where we start with counter-terrorism as well."

Cutting trade ties with Xinjiang would not be a positive step, Brownlee said.

"In the end, it [trade] can be a great tool for the discussions that are needed around a more compatible view of human rights."

Efforts to improve the human rights situation should be at a diplomatic level encouraging China to take heed of the report's recommendations, Brownlee said.


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