Beijing defends mass internment camps at U.N. rights review as U.S. and others slam policy
Protesters against China’s mass detentions of Uighurs demonstrate during a United Nations human-rights review in Geneva on Tuesday.PHOTO: FABRICE COFFRINI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
BEIJING—China’s government delivered a defiant defense of its mass detentions of Muslims at a United Nations human-rights panel in Geneva on Tuesday that turned into a showdown with the U.S. and other critics of the Chinese policy.
With protesters against China marching outside, representatives from roughly a dozen countries, most of them Western, fired criticisms at the Chinese delegation about their country’s network of internment camps in the Xinjiang region as part of a broad review of China’s record by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Presenting in alphabetical order, Australia set the tone, calling on China to “cease the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang.”
Mark Cassayre, with the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in Geneva, was last among the critics, demanding China shut down the detention centers and release all detainees.
China boldly defended its internment of what the U.N. says has been up to one million people, mostly Uighurs, saying it is effective in fighting terrorism and protects the majority in China.
Le Yucheng, the head of the Chinese delegation, reiterated a recent government explanation that the camps are vocational schools and said they were an innovative solution to protecting people and preventing the spread of extremism.
“This protects the human rights of the vast majority, while also saving these people,” Mr. Le said. “It’s another important contribution of China’s to the global counterterror field.”
The exchange was part of a regular cycle of human-rights reviews each country is required to undergo once every few years. In China’s case, the appearance was the first since Chinese authorities began vastly expanding mass surveillance and political indoctrination of Muslims in Xinjiang, a program designed to foster loyalty to the Communist Party and combat a sometimes-violent separatist movement.
Three months ago, in an appearance before a different U.N. panel, Chinese officials denied reports of mass detention and political indoctrination in Xinjiang, saying instead that minor criminals had been sent to vocational training centers.
Since then, the government has acknowledged the facilities have an ideological purpose and credited them with ending violent terrorist incidents that Beijing has said are linked to foreign Islamic militants.
In his appearance before the panel, the mayor of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, referred to the detainees as students and said they were happy to be shown how to inoculate themselves against religious extremism.
“They never realized how rich and colorful life could be,” said the mayor, Yasim Sadiq, himself a Uighur.
Facilities seen by The Wall Street Journal on recent visits to Xinjiang and others described by former detainees are prisonlike, surrounded by high walls, watchtowers and razor wire. Some former detainees described being subjected to mental and physical torture while inside.
Chinese officials have denied any torture, saying the rights of those sent to the facilities are respected.
Rights groups have said that Beijing is trying to erase the cultural identities of Muslims as part of a program of forced assimilation and that the effort presents a test for the international human-rights regime.
“The camps go to the heart of the whole human rights system and what it was about when it was constructed post-World War II,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of New York-based nonprofit group Human Rights in China. Ms. Hom was an observer inside the Palais des Nations, where Tuesday’s panel convened.
Representatives of several countries called for China to grant the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights access to the camps in Xinjiang to verify the government’s claims about their purpose.
Reviews before the U.N. Human Rights Council are constrained. Participating countries are given less than a minute to make statements. The council gives governments undergoing review the authority to decide which panel recommendations they want to accept, and it has no method for punishing those that fail to improve. That makes concessions from China unlikely, commission experts said.
“I do not believe the Chinese behavior will change,” said Nury Turkel, chairman of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, who wasn’t in Geneva. He said Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government “wants to take control of the so-called Uighur problem once and for all.”
Turkey was among more than 50 Muslim countries in attendance at the review and the only one to come close to criticizing China over the Xinjiang issue on Tuesday, calling on the country to improve conditions for ethnic groups that are trying to “preserve their distinct identity, religion and language.”
Kazakhstan, which borders Xinjiang, started to discuss the detentions but was cut off for exceeding its allotted time.
While the U.S. delegation’s condemnations were among the sharpest, it commented as an observer state, having withdrawn from the council in June, after U.N. criticisms of the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.
China’s representative took a swipe at the U.S. and other critics, saying Beijing “will not accept politically driven accusations from a few countries fraught with bias.”
In a national report submitted to the U.N. ahead of the review, Beijing said there is “no universal road for the development of human rights in the world.” Instead, it said, the country was committed to pursuit of “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”
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