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China's Xinjiang region's Vice-Governor Erkin Tuniyaz attends the Human Rights Council meeting at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 25, 2019. © 2019 Marina Depetris/Reuters

(Geneva) – Twenty-two countries at the United Nations’ top human rights body issued a joint statement this week, urging China to end its mass arbitrary detentions and related violations against Muslims in the Xinjiang region, Human Rights Watch said today. In their unprecedented move, the countries also called on China to cooperate with the UN high commissioner for human rights and UN experts to allow meaningful access to the region.

“Twenty-two states have called China to task for its horrific treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “The joint statement is important not only for Xinjiang’s population, but for people around the world who depend on the UN’s leading rights body to hold even the most powerful countries to account.”

The countries expressed concern about reports of large-scale arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance, and other violations against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. They urged China “to allow meaningful access to Xinjiang” for UN and independent international observers, and asked the high commissioner to keep the Human Rights Council (HRC) regularly informed on the situation.

In recent years, human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and the media have reported on “political education” camps in Xinjiang, in which approximately 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are detained without any legal process, and subjected to political indoctrination, ill-treatment, and sometimes torture. Chinese authorities have deployed extraordinary surveillance technologies to track – and treat as criminal – a wide variety of lawful behavior. The government has either denied that the abuses are taking place or tried to justify its conduct as part of a national counterterrorism strategy.

In March, at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a regular review of the rights record of every UN member state, China sought to suppress critical scrutiny of its rights abuses. China tried to manipulate the review, provided blatantly false answers on critical issues such as freedom of expression and the rule of law, and threatened delegations “in the interest of our bilateral relations” not to attend a panel on human rights in Xinjiang.

The fact that many countries are now willing to call for an independent international assessment reflects skepticism about China’s pronouncements about the situation in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said.

The previous joint statement on China at the HRC was led by the United States in March 2016 with 12 signatories. That nearly double the number of countries have joined the current effort reflects growing international concern over the situation in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said. The signatories so far are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Additional states are considering signing on. 

“Governments are increasingly recognizing the suffering of millions of people in Xinjiang, with families torn apart and living in fear, and a Chinese state that believes it can commit mass violations uncontested,” Fisher said. “The joint statement demonstrates that Beijing is wrong to think it can escape international scrutiny for its abuses in Xinjiang, and the pressure will only increase until these appalling abuses end.”

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