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UN sidesteps tough US criticism on counterterrorism chief’s trip to Xinjiang

LI Yong, Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and then-Ambassador Vladimir Voronkov, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation on August 20, 2013. (UNIDO/Released)
June 18, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A United Nations spokesman sidestepped on Monday blistering U.S. criticism of the agency’s decision to send its top counterterrorism official to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) over the weekend despite China’s incarceration of more than a million Muslims in internment camps.

Washington argues that the trip to Xinjiang by Vladimir Voronkov, the U.N.’s under-secretary general for counter-terrorism, risks lending credence to China’s claims that detentions in the region are related to a counterterrorism issue, rather than a violation of human rights.

On Friday, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan spoke to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to raise U.S. concerns about Voronkov’s trip, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

“The deputy secretary expressed that such a visit is highly inappropriate in view of the unprecedented repression campaign underway in Xinjiang against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslims,” said Ortagus.

“The deputy secretary noted that Beijing continues to paint its repressive campaign against Uyghurs and other Muslims as legitimate counterterrorism efforts when it is not, and stressed that the UN’s topmost counterterrorism official is putting at risk the UN’s reputation and credibility on counterterrorism and human rights by lending credence to these false claims,” she said.

Sullivan, the spokeswoman said, had called for “unmonitored and unhindered access to all camps and detainees in Xinjiang by UN human rights officials.”

At the UN on Monday, a spokesman confirmed that Voronkov had made an official three-day trip to China at the invitation of the Chinese government, visiting the only permanent UN Security Council member he had yet to visit since taking over as head of the head of the UN Office of Counterterrorism.

A separate UN statement said Voronkov “briefed on the implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and its four pillars, which focus on conditions conducive to terrorism, preventing and countering terrorism and the role of the United Nations, and upholding human rights and the rule of law.”

In addition to meeting senior officials in Beijing, Voronkov also “met with local authorities in Urumqi,” it said.

Asked about Sullivan’s criticism of the decision to include Xinjiang on the itinerary, the UN spokesman said: “We have, I think, said what we’ve had to say on the trip taken by Mr. Voronkov.”

Word of Voronkov’s brief trip to Xinjiang emerged just after Beijing’s envoy invited U.N. human rights chief Michele Bachelet to “see for herself” what he called “education training centers” in the region.

‘Truly shameful’

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) confirmed to RFA’s Uyghur Service that Bachelet had received an invitation to visit the XUAR, but suggested she would not accept unless given access to the camps on her own terms.

Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, called the Xinjiang visit by Voronkov “an irrevocable mistake on the part of General Secretary Guterres.”

“It is truly shameful for the UN that its Under Secretary for Counterterrorism Vladimir Voronkov visited East Turkestan and China at a time anywhere from one to three million Uyghurs have been locked up in Chinese concentration camps for more than two years,” he told RFA on Monday.

“This official visit, approved by the UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres, allows China to link its crimes against humanity in East Turkestan as a necessary counterterrorism measure,” said Isa.

“Instead of raising and investigating China’s horrific treatment of the Uyghur people, the visit by Voronkov should be seen as the UN not only endorsing China’s repression of the Uyghur people but rather legitimizing and collaborating with the authoritarian government in Beijing to further suppress the Uyghur people.”

China recently organized two visits to monitor internment camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”

Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.

In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, cited “massive human rights violations in Xinjiang where over a million people are being held in a humanitarian crisis that is the scale of what took place in the 1930s.”

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told RFA’s Uyghur Service in an interview on June 5 that countries around the world must speak out on the Uyghur camps, or risk emboldening China and other authoritarian regimes.

“The Muslim countries should do that. The Western world, the entire world, should do this and condemn these sort of internment camps, of over a million people interned in the year 2019, and they are interned primarily because of their faith and the practice of their faith,” he said.

The U.S. Congress has also joined in efforts to halt the incarcerations, debating legislation that seeks accountability for China’s harsh crackdown on the Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act would appoint a special State Department coordinator on Xinjiang and require regular reports on the camps, the surveillance network and the security threats posed by the crackdown.

Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.