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Wed 8 April 2020
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Steve Shaw reports on the UK Government’s response to news of China’s continuing human rights violations against its Muslim minority.

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The UK could be gearing up to impose sanctions on China after members of the House of Lords called it “hollow” for the Government to say it will never forget the Holocaust, while allowing Beijing to arbitrarily detain millions of people from the ethnic Uyghur population.

The persecution of Uyghurs living in China’s northern region of Xinjiang was raised in the House of Lords this week and peers demanded action as they compared Beijing’s “re-education” camps to the concentration camps used by the Nazis during World War Two.

Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon revealed that the Government is now “contemplating” sanctions on China which would be “geared at ensuring that those who commit human rights abuses are not allowed to enter countries”. He also confirmed that the UK is appealing to the Chinese Government to allow Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to be given access to Xinjiang.

UK-imposed sanctions are likely to prompt a furious response from China which has previously railed against British politicians for commenting on the country’s poor human rights record. Last month, Beijing also accused the US of violating international law by authorising similar legislation aimed at sanctioning officials for human rights violations in Hong Kong.

It is believed that more than a million people, primarily from the ethnic Uyghur population, are currently being detained in “re-education” camps that aim to force people to reject their religion in favour of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi said that the Uyghurs are being subjected to the “largest surveillance and internment of any ethnic minority since the Holocaust”.

“They are subjected to torture in the name of re-education and retraining,” she said. “The families of British Uyghurs are currently detained in camps. We will mark Holocaust Memorial Day a week today, does the Government recognise the hollowness of pledging to never forget when we allow the horrors of the past to be repeated in full view and with our full knowledge?”

Beijing has defended the camps as being for “re-education”, aiming at tackling religious extremism. The Chinese Government has also claimed that, since establishing the camps, it has cut all terror attacks in the region. But, in November, highly classified Chinese Government documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), exposing what the group called the “largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War Two”.

The documents – dated 2017 and branded “pure fabrication and fake news” by the Chinese Government – included a detailed manual for the operation of the camps. This included outlining how to prevent escapes, how to maintain secrecy about the camps’ existence, methods of forced indoctrination, when to let detainees see relatives and even when they can use the toilet or bathe.

It also detailed what the ICIJ called a “behaviour-modification ‘points’ system to mete out punishments and rewards to inmates” and noted that inmates must stay in the camps for a year. Explicit direction is given to camp officials to “never allow abnormal deaths”.

Action from the British Government would be welcomed by rights groups but questions remain over whether it will have come too late.

It was almost two years ago that the United Nations first revealed details of the camps in Xinjiang and Westminster’s stance on the unrest in Hong Kong has also been weak, despite the Thatcher Government signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang in 1984. 

In this declaration, the UK pledged to be a key partner in guaranteeing Hong Kong could retain its way of life until at least 2047, including ensuring that China upholds its end of the bargain. But, when UK ministers spoke out against the recent wave of police violence, the Chinese ambassador to the UK dismissed them for having a “colonial mindset” and told them to avoid “irresponsible” remarks. The British Government has also reacted passively to comments from Chinese President Xi Jinping who has branded the legally binding declaration “history”.

In recent months, Hong Kong’s residents have lost hope in the UK and have instead turned to the US, where politicians have taken a stronger stance. This includes US Senator Marco Rubio who has also openly stated that “the Chinese Communist Party is preventing the city’s government from acting with the autonomy that Beijing had promised it in a legally binding 1984 international treaty with Britain”.

Polly Truscott, foreign affairs advisor at Amnesty International UK, told Byline Times: “The UK and other countries should certainly have acted sooner when China’s campaign of mass internment against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang first came to light.

“Although it wasn’t until mid-2019 that the UK began to speak out, its call on China in October last year to allow unfettered UN human rights access to Xinjiang was helpful. The UK must now keep up the international momentum, and seek to build broader support for an UN investigation into these abuses.

“The UK must also press the Hong Kong authorities to launch an independent investigation into the use of force by police during the Extradition Bill protests. There must also be further calls for China to immediately end its crackdown on human rights defenders, and an independent investigation into the use of force by Hong Kong police during the Extradition Bill protests.

“Any targeted UK and EU sanctions need to be considered carefully to ensure they’d meet fair trial guarantees, and don’t result in any further crackdown on ethnic minorities and human rights activists.”


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