This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Chinese government is increasingly moving Uyghurs from internment camps to the regular penal system while claiming it is closing the camps, experts and foreign diplomats told a forum on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.
The panel of diplomats and human rights experts slammed Beijing’s attempted interference.
“Thank you also for being here, notwithstanding the PRC’s continued attempts to intimidate and to silence those speaking out on human rights,” said Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, using an acronym for China’s government.
She described the Chinese U.N. mission’s letter as “yet another example of a global campaign of transnational repression” against the Muslim minority, most of whom live in China’s far-west Xinjiang region.
“I’m also pleased to see that their efforts have only increased international scrutiny on the situation within Xinjiang, and particularly the atrocities against the Uyghur people,” Van Schaack said.
Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, brandished a copy of the letter, which was first obtained by National Review, and said the “strong recommendation” from China that nobody attend the event made it more important that the room was full.
“Any government that’s going to go out of its way to bother doing this, first of all, has no business sitting on the U.N. Human Rights Council, but also it’s essentially confirming that it’s got a lot to hide and it knows it,” Richardson said, defending the event as a moral imperative.
The panel’s job was “to talk about the facts,” she said, “because we can, and because they don’t want us to, and because Uyghurs can’t.”
Radio Free Asia contacted the Chinese Embassy in Washington, which said questions should be directed to China’s permanent mission to the United Nations. But Chinese diplomats at the U.N. mission could not be reached by phone and did not respond to an emailed request for comments.
Two European diplomats also spoke during the event.
Peter Loeffelhardt, the German Foreign Office’s director for Asia and the Pacific, referred to China’s warning letter, which accused the panel of “plotting to use human rights issues as a political tool to undermine Xinjiang’s stability and disrupt China’s peaceful development.”
“It is a false and dangerous narrative to say that human rights are an obstacle to development,” he said. “Human rights always need to be part of the discussion. When we address human rights violations, bilaterally and multilaterally, it is not an interference in internal affairs.”
Belén Martinez Carbonell, managing director for multilateral affairs at the European Union’s foreign relations arm, said Europe believed the repression of the Uyghurs was “a very important topic that we would not like to be missed” among all the issues at the General Assembly.
“In the European Union, we are concerned for many issues, such as political reeducation camps, mass arbitrary detentions, widespread surveillance, trafficking and control measures, systemic and severe restriction of the exercise of fundamental freedoms,” she said.
Those included “the use of forced labor, torture, forced abortion and sterilization, birth control, and family separation policies and sexual and gender based violence.”
“What a long list,” she said.
Martinez Carbonell also said the European Parliament was working on Europe’s own version of the U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans the import of any product that was made even partially using forced labor of Uyghurs interned in Chinese camps.
Gady Epstein, a senior editor at The Economist magazine and the forum’s moderator, noted that “stories about Xinjiang have faded a little from the headlines or from the front pages” in recent times, being replaced by some about the closure of certain internment camps.
Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnès Callamard said the decrease in attention was not due to any changes on the ground.
“The situation has not changed in its essence,” Callamard said. “It may have shifted a little bit in the forms that certain violations have taken, but it has certainly not shifted in the essence of the violations.”
Callamard said Uyghurs still enjoyed no freedom of movement, or religion or culture, or to “equality and non-discrimination.” She added that even the claims of camp closures were disingenuous.
“It is a fact that we are witnessing more and more arbitrary detention [and] the shifting of individuals into formal prisons,” Callamard said.
It was a concern mirrored by Van Schaak, the U.S. official.
“We are now particularly concerned about the dramatic increase in prosecutions with long-term sentences in Xinjiang, including the reported transfer of some detainees from so-called re-education or vocational training centers into more formal penal prisons,” she said.
“Of the more than 15,000 Xinjiang residents whose sentences are known, more than 95% of those convicted – often under very vague charges, like separatism or endangering state security – have received sentences of 5 to 20 years, and in some cases of life.”
Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur human rights lawyer and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, which organized the panel, told the panel that another enduring part of Beijing’s repression campaign was the cruel methods it often used to silence Uyghurs living outside China.
“Uyghur-Americans living in America are still subject to China’s long-arm reach,” Asat said. “What they are using is our families, our loved ones, their lives. They are literally keeping them hostage.”
She explained that after years of no contact with relatives back in Xinjiang, Chinese officials might suddenly allow brief contact.
“There have been several Uyghurs who came forward to say that sometimes it’s just bittersweet,” she said. “They let you hear your loved one’s voice for a second so you know they’re alive. But then you must be watching your actions: What comes next? It’s incredibly inhumane.”