More than 40 countries expressed their concern in a formal statement Thursday at the United Nations about the situation of ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in China’s semi-autonomous Xinjiang province.
“There are generalized and systematic violations of human rights, torture, forced sterilization, sexual violence and forced separation of children,” France’s U.N. Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière said on behalf of the 43 concerned countries. “Freedom of religion, movement, expression, as well as Uyghur culture, are subject to severe restrictions.”
In their joint statement, the nations also expressed concern about “widespread surveillance” targeting Uyghurs and members of other minorities, as well as the “collective repression of religious and ethnic minorities.” They called for China to grant the high commissioner for human rights access to Xinjiang.
Human rights groups and some governments accuse China of sending more than 1 million Uyghurs to detention camps. Beijing says the compounds are “vocational education centers” intended to stop the spread of religious extremism and terrorist attacks.
The numbers and diversity of countries joining the statement in the General Assembly committee that deals with human rights have continued to grow since a core group of mostly Western states started in recent years asking countries to participate in the bid to turn up the pressure on Beijing.
Turkey joined for the first time this year, as did the African nations of Liberia and Eswatini. But some Muslim-majority countries that are close to China, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, did not join the statement.
China’s U.N. ambassador dismissed the group’s criticism as “groundless.”
“To the U.S. and a few other countries, let me say this: Your trite lies are totally unfounded,” Ambassador Zhang Jun said. “Xinjiang enjoys stability, development and prosperity, and the Chinese people’s life is getting better day by day.”
Zhang said dozens of countries had expressed support for Beijing and criticized interference in countries’ internal affairs under the guise of human rights.
Some of those supporters included countries with their own tarnished human rights records, such as Belarus, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has a standing request to visit Xinjiang, but the discussions about the terms of her visit have dragged on for years.
At a news conference after the committee meeting, Zhang said that “Xinjiang’s door is always open” and that many diplomats, journalists and religious figures have visited.
“The happy lives and the smiles of the Chinese people are the best manifestation of China’s human rights situation,” he told reporters.
Human Rights Watch said the growing global condemnation of Beijing’s policies toward the Uyghurs should be a cause for concern for China and a source of hope for those it is oppressing.
“For the first time, all U.N. regional groups joined in calling for the violations in Xinjiang to stop and U.N. investigators to get immediate access,” said Louis Charbonneau, Human Rights Watch’s U.N. director.
“Member states should establish an international commission of inquiry to formally investigate alleged crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and recommend avenues for holding those responsible to account.”