The Chinese government is facing a barrage of bad press for its systemic abuses against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang region. Journalists have been spotlighting links between forced labor in Xinjiang and global supply chains for everything from hair products to ketchup to solar power. The Economist devoted its cover story to the issue, calling the situation “the gravest example of a worldwide attack on human rights.” In response, China’s government has cynically tried to use the United Nations as a shield for its bad behavior.
In a letter to the editor in The Economist, a senior Chinese diplomat in London suggested that his government’s policies in Xinjiang follow “principles embodied in a number of international documents on counter-terrorism, such as the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.” But at the risk of stating the obvious, no UN counterterrorism principle would ever countenance the surveillance, family separation, mass arbitrary detention and forcible political re-education of millions of people, as is the case in Xinjiang.
By dragging the UN into the debate, the Chinese government is racheting up its move to cast the oppression of Turkic Muslims as counterterrorism, and trying to cloak these mass crimes with the legitimacy of multilateralism. Previously, top UN officials have often been loathe to question the Chinese government’s characterization of their campaign as counterterrorism, or demand that Xinjiang’s detention camps be closed. But not everyone is willing to toe the Chinese government’s line. UN member states and UN human rights experts have increasingly been willing to challenge Beijing’s rights record. While the Chinese government has faced isolated violent attacks in Xinjiang, a responsible and rights-respecting counterterrorism response does not involve arbitrarily detaining a million people. Indeed, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy that China cited actually emphasizes the need to uphold human rights, and warns that violations of human rights and rule of law can fuel terrorism.
As the UN secretary-general reviews the UN’s counterterrorism strategy in the coming months, he should make clear that he won’t allow the UN’s principles to be taken out of context and used as a fig leaf to justify bone-chilling repression. Otherwise, unscrupulous governments like China’s will continue to use the UN’s words to justify their atrocities.