Canada is leading an international effort at the United Nations to demand that China allow “meaningful and unfettered access” to investigate “credible reports” of widespread human rights violations against China’s Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, CBC News has learned.
An international alliance that is expected to include more than 20 countries — including Canada’s G7 partners and Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand — will make its demand in a joint statement it’s expected to deliver to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday.
“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” says a draft of the joint statement seen by CBC News and addressed to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
“We urge China to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including the High Commissioner,” reads the statement, which also calls for the end of “the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities.”
The statement also expresses concerns about the “deterioration of fundamental freedoms” in Hong Kong and Tibet and calls on China to “abide by their human rights obligations.”
The international effort comes as 60 parliamentarians from 18 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, including Canada, plan to issue a separate public letter asking the UN Human Rights Council to set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate what it calls crimes against humanity and indications of genocide in Xinjiang province.
These diplomatic moves follow years of reports from media, academic and UN experts that have accused China of imprisoning more than a million Muslim-minority Uyghurs in concentration and “deradicalization” camps, targeting them for forced labour, sexual violence, population control methods and sweeping surveillance.
The Chinese government has denied the claims of human rights abuses.
China pushes back
In February, the Chinese government lashed out at Canada after the House of Commons voted to declare that China is committing genocide against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.
“Facts have proven that there’s no genocide in Xinjiang. This is the lie of the century made up by extremely anti-China forces,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, according to a translation of his remarks provided by the foreign ministry.
The Commons motion said that China’s persecution of these groups amounts to genocide, according to the definition set out in the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, and called on the federal government to formally adopt that position.
A substantial majority of MPs — including most Liberals who participated — voted in favour of the non-binding motion, which was proposed by the Conservative Party.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all but one member of his cabinet were absent for the vote. Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau was present but said he was abstaining from the vote “on behalf of the Government of Canada.”
A draft of the joint statement to be delivered to the council in Geneva expresses grave concerns about what is going on in Xinjiang.
‘Torture … cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’
“Credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uyghurs and other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uyghur culture,” the draft joint statement says.
“There are also reports of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents by authorities.”
The joint statement also expresses concerns about allegations of “forced labour” and the “collective repression of religious and ethnic minorities” by the Chinese regime.
Aware of the coming joint statement, China issued a preemptive rebuke to the countries behind it, accusing them of habitually using “human rights issues as tools to practice blatant political manipulation.”
“Some individual countries like the U.S., Canada and the U.K. have been seeking to attack and smear China under the guise of human rights, making and spreading disinformation, and abusing the platform of the UN Human Rights Council,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters in a briefing.
Zhao went on to say pressure tactics like the joint statement only obstruct international dialogue and cooperation on human rights. He also accused the countries behind the joint statement of ignoring human rights abuses in their own countries.
“They have human rights issues like racism, gun violence, forced labour, child labour, and the list goes on and on,” Zhao said, citing the death of George Floyd in police custody in the U.S. and reports on the discovery of “the remains of Indigenous children found in residential schools in Canada.”
The public letter on behalf of elected officials from 18 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China separately alleges that China is “committing crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, with “credible sources finding indications of genocide.”
The parliamentarians also accuse the council of “failing to end impunity for perpetrators of abuse.”
“At least one million people are held in arbitrary detention, with inmates exposed to sexual abuse, torture and political indoctrination,” the letter says.
“Since 2015, birth rates of minority groups have declined dramatically in the wake of forced sterilizations, forced abortions and draconian birth control policies against minority groups.”
The coalition of international parliamentarians is asking the council to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, identify the alleged perpetrators, make recommendations to end those abuses and report back regularly to the UN on progress.
China did not commit to providing the access for UN investigators that the joint statement demands. Zhao did say, without elaborating, that “the world will see the facts and come to a fair judgment.”
“If these countries think they can deceive the international community, jeopardize the prosperity, stability and sustainable development of Xinjiang and hamstring China’s development by fabricating lies on Xinjiang, that will be like trying to hold back the tide with a broom,” he said. “Failure will be their fate!”