Days after a group of 22 countries highlighted Chinese massive detention program in Xinjiang in a letter UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, another group of 37 countries submitted a similar letter defending of China’s policies, including Saudi Arabia.
In the first letter, the signatories expressed concern about “credible reports of arbitrary detention” in Xinjiang and “widespread surveillance and restrictions” particularly targeting Uyghur Muslims and other minorities.
The signatories urged China to uphold its national laws and international commitments, including as a member of the Human Rights Council, and “refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”
According to the Associated Press, in the second letter, the group of 22 nations communicated their concern on “politicizing human rights” and reiterated China’s defence of what Beijing calls “vocation education and training centers” and critics call detention centers or “re-education camps.”
Reuters quotes the letter more deeply, including a passage in which the signatories justify China’s efforts: “Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers.”
Those that signed the first letter, criticizing China, include – 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 UK.
Signing the second letter, in defense of China’s policies, were: Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Comoros, Congo, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Gabon, Kuwait, Laos, Myanmar, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Togo, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
The first letter is dominated by Western states, mostly in Europe, and the second one with African and Middle Eastern nations. Importantly, the first letter does not include a single signature from a Muslim-majority state while the second features many, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Then there are the nations that don’t appear on either list. The absence of the United States — which left the UN Human Rights Council last summer — is particularly important.
While the United States has been selectively critical of China’s atrocities in Xinjiang, the Trump administration does not appear to be too interested in pushing Beijing to the wall and looks more interested in trade negotiations.
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board commented in an op-ed over the weekend: “The United States ought to be at the forefront of exposing and denouncing these abuses. Instead, the State Department and the White House speak out only when convenient for Donald Trump’s other priorities.”
Most of the Central and Eastern European nations were also absent. Only Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania criticized China while the rest including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia — did not bother to pick a side.
Strangely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan also refrained to pick a side. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan sided with China, but the other three Central Asian states appear to be trying to remain neutral. For Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan most prominently, the Xinjiang issue has become a domestic issue with protests and civil society organizations advocating for attention to the Xinjiang camps. Ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are among those who have been detained and civil society organizations have sprung up around families whose relatives have vanished in Xinjiang.
From Asia, Malaysia, India, and Indonesia did not pick a side just like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Malaysia, a Muslim-majority state, has raised concerns about China’s Xinjiang policies several times and even risked Beijing’s ire by refusing to deport a group of Uyghurs back to China last year.
Yet Malaysia did not sign the letter challenging the treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, India hosts the second-largest, and Bangladesh the fourth. Both Sri Lanka and the Maldives have been in the news for their entanglements with China, but neither signed either letter.