A United Nations committee delivered a sharp rebuke to China on Friday for its treatment of Uyghurs, accusing Beijing of turning its sprawling western Xinjiang region into “a no-rights zone.”
Gay McDougall, vice-chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said she is “deeply concerned” by reports that China, under the guise of combating religious extremism, “has turned the [Xinjiang] Uyghur Autonomous Region into something that resembles a massive internment camp.”
Some Uyghurs – a largely Muslim ethnic minority – “are being treated as enemies of the state based solely on their ethno-religious identity,” said Ms. McDougall, a lawyer and scholar of international law who was the first UN independent expert on minority issues.
She criticized China for placing Uyghurs into so-called “re-education” as part of a broad campaign that has placed hundreds of thousands of Xinjiang Muslims into internment camps. Numerous others, she said, are being held in counterextremism centres.
“All of these detainees have had their due-process rights violated. Most have never been charged with an offence, tried in a court of law or afforded an opportunity to challenge the illegality of their detention. Many just disappear. Their relatives never know what happened to them,” she said.
Ms. McDougall’s comments are among the most strongly worded condemnations to date by an international body of the situation in Xinjiang, where internment camps for political indoctrination have proliferated since 2017.
Chinese officials have denied the existence of such facilities, although their construction has been confirmed through government procurement documents and satellite images.
The Chinese government, in a lengthy submission to the committee, pointed to its economic achievements in Xinjiang, a region Uyghurs refer to as East Turkestan.
Xinjiang’s per capita GDP more than doubled between 2008 and 2015, while its disposable income last year showed “the fastest growth of anywhere in the country,” the Chinese report states. The region is China’s top producer of cotton and among its largest sources of wool, cashmere and milk, it adds. It also says all people charged with a crime in Xinjiang and neighbouring Tibet are ensured of a fair trial.
“The Chinese government respects and protects the freedom of religious beliefs as well as the customs of Muslims,” the report states.
Numerous Uyghurs have told The Globe and Mail that Muslims in Xinjiang are taken to internment centres without trial or formal charges. Scholars estimate hundreds of thousands of people are in those centres; Ms. McDougall placed the number at two million, although she offered no source for that figure. Uyghurs in Xinjiang have also told The Globe they face severe religious restrictions: Long beards are banned for younger men, families cannot have Korans in their homes and the presence of religious material on smartphones can be grounds for forced re-education.
The review of racial discrimination in China raised questions about the country’s treatment of North Korean refugees, bias against minorities in the workplace, harassment and intimidation of human-rights lawyers and imposition of Mandarin instruction to the exclusion of other languages.
Several committee members flattered China for improvements it has made in laws governing rights for minorities, although they questioned whether changes on paper made much difference on the ground.
Some of the sharpest queries were related to Xinjiang, where China’s treatment of Uyghurs has begun to attract global attention. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, in a Wall Street Journal article on Friday, called for sanctions against Xinjiang party secretary Chen Quanguo and companies “assisting the mass detentions and surveillance,” a campaign he called “evil.”
At the committee session, member Yemhelhe Mint Mohamed asked: “What is the level of religious freedom available to Uyghurs now in China? What legal protection exists for them to practise their religion?”
China’s lead representative to the committee, Yu Jianhua, said he would respond on Monday. “We have taken careful notes,” he said.