UN Visit to Xinjiang May Have Legitimized China’s Persecution of Uyghurs

Vladimir Voronkov, UN undersecretary-general for counterterrorism. (Image: kremlin.ru  via  flickr  CC BY 3.0)
Vladimir Voronkov, UN undersecretary-general for counterterrorism. (Image: kremlin.ru via flickr CC BY 3.0)

The UN chief of counterterrorism recently visited the controversial Xinjiang region in China where Beijing is said to have carried out the persecution of Uyghur minorities. The move has sparked strong criticism from human rights activists, who say that the visit gives legitimacy to the horrific treatment of the Uyghurs.

The UN visit

Vladimir Voronkov, a former Russian diplomat and the UN’s undersecretary general for counterterrorism, toured Xinjiang for three days during which he met with local officials. He was reportedly “briefed” on how the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy is being implemented in the region. State media reported that Voronkov arrived at a consensus with local authorities, which suggested that the UN was supportive of China’s counter-terrorism actions in the area. This has irked rights organizations since over a million Uyghurs have been persecuted by the Chinese regime over the past years.

To visit the region and signal that the UN “approves” China’s activities trivializes the plight of Uyghurs, painting them as radicals and Beijing as the “good guy.” Previously, China had invited the UN High Commissioner, Michele Bachelet, to visit Xinjiang and assess the condition of Uyghurs. However, Bachelet stated that she will only visit the region if China provides unconditional access and guarantees that she can speak freely without any censorship. Beijing did not respond to the request.

Michelle Bachelet asked for unrestricted access to Xinjiang. (Image: casarosada.gob.ar via wikimedia CC BY 2.0 )

“Voronkov’s departure statement conveys no concern about Beijing’s abuses of Uyghurs and makes no reference to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet’s request for unrestricted access to the region… It didn’t even challenge China’s narrative that the problems in Xinjiang are ones of terrorism, rather than human rights abuses… [UN had empowered Beijing] at the cost of Uyghurs’ human rights,” Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch China director, said in a statement (CNN).

Uyghur activist Dolkun Isa calls such Chinese invitations insincere. Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, has detailed the plight of his community to the European Parliament and the UN Human Rights Council. However, he has been disheartened by a lack of concrete action from the international community. “A visit is worth it only if China unconditionally allows an independent UN fact-finding mission to visit East Turkestan with unfettered access to all camps, all detainees, and to speak with any detainees and officials they want. Otherwise, this visit will only be used by China to deceive the international community,” he said in a statement (Asia News).

Extremism in Xinjiang

Last year, a UN committee confirmed that Uyghurs were being held at “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang. The authorities in the region had passed a legislative amendment that legally recognized the detention centers as “re-education camps.” By giving it a legal spin, Beijing seems to have succeeded in pressuring the UN not to rake up the treatment of Uyghurs as a human rights issue.  

Beijing seems to have succeeded in pressuring the UN to not rake up the Uyghur issue. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

“[The amendment] completely fails to acknowledge that there are internment camps where people are held coercively against their will… Thus, it creates the appearance that the centers are entirely innocuous and legal… If the legislation changes anything, it is that writing these centers into the legislation could enable further institutionalization of these centers,” Eva Pils, a professor specializing in human rights and the law in China, said to the South China Morning Post.

In the U.S., lawmakers have asked the government to include the issue of Uyghurs in trade talks with China. Some have also demanded sanctions on Chinese officials who are identified as being involved in the persecution of the community. 

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