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New Zealand draws back from calling Chinese abuses of Uyghurs genocide

Parliament will not debate motion and will instead discuss rights abuses in more general terms.

Jacinda Ardern said in a speech on Monday that New Zealand’s differences with China were becoming ‘harder to reconcile’. [Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images]

New Zealand’s parliament will not debate a motion that would label the abuses of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, China, as acts of genocide.

Parliament opted instead on Tuesday to water down the language, and discuss concerns about human rights abuses in the region in more general terms.

It is expected the new motion will pass unanimously on Wednesday. However, it marks no deviation from the country’s current position.

The foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, had already put out a statement in March, voicing “grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang”.

The ACT party deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesperson, Brooke van Velden, filed the original motion. She said the Labour party, which holds a majority in New Zealand’s parliament, would not support the motion unless “genocide” was removed from its wording.

“It’s a sad state of affairs that we’ve needed to soften our language to debate hard issues,” she said in a statement.

The New Zealand government has been under increasing pressure both domestically and from international allies to take a stronger stance on the situation in Xinjiang.

By refusing to allow the genocide motion to move on to the debate stage, New Zealand’s government has moved out of step with some of its traditional partners, including Britain, Canada and the US.

British MPs voted in April to declare China was committing genocide, and Britain and the EU have taken joint action with the US and Canada to impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims.

In April, New Zealand’s stance was strongly criticised during the British parliamentary debate, with the Conservative MP Bob Seely saying the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, was “in a hell of an ethical mess”.

On Tuesday, an open letter from Uyghurs in New Zealand called on parliament to declare the situation genocide. “We understand that New Zealand is not a military superpower, or a trade superpower, however, New Zealand is a moral superpower. We can influence the fate of the 20 million Uyghur people suffering back home,” it read.

“We are desperate. For those of us in New Zealand, the most painful torture we face is social isolation … our friends, relatives and colleagues back home are either in prisons, concentration camps or subject to omnipresent surveillance and a total lack of freedom.”

Evidence has emerged from China of mass internment of the Uyghur minority, as well as forced sterilisation, forced labour, and allegations of mass rape and torture in Xinjiang. Interviews with guards and detainees at the camps in February found “they experienced or saw evidence of an organised system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture”. Analysis in March by a US-based thinktank, the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, found China had breached every single article of the UN genocide convention in its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and was committing a genocide.

China has strongly denied accusations of human rights abuses.

So far, the New Zealand government has been attempting to balance its human rights commitments with the demands of its largest trade partner. Near the end of 2020, the value of exports to China alone surpassed the value of New Zealand’s next four largest trading partners – Australia, the US, UK, and Japan – combined. Trade to China accounts for about a third of New Zealand’s dairy exports, almost 60% of forestry products and more than 40% of meat, according to Stats NZ.

The trade minister, Damien O’Connor, put the economic stakes bluntly when approached by reporters as he walked to Labour’s caucus discussion of the “genocide” motion on Tuesday.

“Clearly the Chinese government wouldn’t like something like that … I have no doubt it would have some impact [with trade]. That’s hardly rocket science,” O’Connor said, according to a report by Stuff.

The opposition leader, Judith Collins, also said New Zealand’s trade relationship with China was the “elephant in the room” in the discussion.

“If you’re looking at trade, at the moment, clearly we are [beholden to China] in terms of trade. So 29-30% of our trade goes to China,” she told Stuff.

Australia is providing a vision of what a collapse in that trade relationship might look like. Following a diplomatic rift, China has retaliated with tariffs, import restrictions and a warning to its citizens not to travel to Australia. An analysis last year found China’s declared and undeclared sanctions against Australia cost the country around AU$47.7bn (£26.5bn) last year.

The New Zealand Green party foreign affairs spokesperson, Golriz Ghahraman, said it was clear the issue of trade and how it could be affected by the genocide label “is a central concern for government”, given the two major parties had both commented on it. She said it should have no bearing on how New Zealand condemned atrocities.

“It’s unsettling to know that we’re that open about saying we could prioritise trade over mass torture and death,” Ghahraman said “I’m dismayed that the government – or anyone – would turn their minds to trying to balance our profits as a nation, when we’re talking about the mass torture of a Muslim minority by another government. That is unacceptable as a consideration.”

The original motion, with genocide wording, had clear support from two minority parties: ACT and Green. Ghahraman said that while the party supported the original motion, alone it was insufficient. “Seeing strong language like genocide is appropriate – but it has to trigger action,” she said. She said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had no way to tell whether New Zealand trades in goods produced by the forced labour of Uyghur detainees.

“We’re not just talking about a normal trade sanction – we’re talking about literally buying goods that were produced through an atrocity.”

On Monday, Ardern said in a speech that New Zealand’s differences with China were becoming “harder to reconcile”.

“There are some things on which China and New Zealand do not, cannot, and will not agree,” she said. “This need not derail our relationship, it is simply a reality.”

Ardern has declined to reveal whether, in her personal view, the events in Xinjiang constituted genocide.

© Tess McClure for The Guardian, 2021

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