United Nations Headquarters
New York, New York
Today at the United Nations Security Council in New York, the situation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang was debated publicly during a meeting on the cooperation between the U.N. and regional organizations in countering terrorist threats.
Unexpectedly, it was China’s State Councilor Wáng Yì 王毅 who first raised the topic in his remarks to the council. He said: “Progress shows that the deradicalization measures in Xinjiang…are China’s important contribution to the global fight against terrorism.”
“Between 1990 and 2016,” Wang said, “Xinjiang of China was plagued by violent terrorist activities, suffering from thousands of terrorist attacks, and, in the worst times, one incident per day. In contrast, the past three years saw no such incident in Xinjiang. Not even a single case. What has enabled the difference? It is the vigorous measures taken by the government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.”
He added: “Such efforts…provide maximum safeguards for the right to subsistence, the right to development and other basic rights of the near 25 million people across Xinjiang. And these measures have been supported and endorsed by people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang and across China. And this is a basic fact recognized by all foreigners who have been to Xinjiang.”
Jonathan Cohen, the United States’ Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, responded later in his remarks, saying: “We are deeply concerned by the situation in Xinjiang, where more than one million Uighurs and other Muslims have been arbitrarily detained under the guise of counterterrorism. Men, women, and children in Xinjiang have been subjected to torture, forced labor, and invasive arbitrary surveillance solely on the basis of their religion and ethnicity.”
Cohen appeared to be reading from prepared remarks, indicating that the U.S. was prepared for China to raise the issue today. “China, like all nations,” he continued, “has every right to respond to actual terrorist threats, but counterterrorism cannot be used as an excuse to repress the peaceful religious practices of Chinese Muslims and an entire minority group.”
By this time Wang Yi had left the chamber, but the Deputy Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations, Wú Hǎitāo 吴海涛, immediately requested to take the floor following Cohen’s statement. Reading from what appeared to be prepared remarks, he urged the representative of the U.S. “to not stand on the opposite side of facts and justice, or the opposite side of the various ethnic groups found in the people of Xinjiang.” Recalling Libya’s further descent into chaos following a Security Council authorized humanitarian intervention which the U.S. strongly backed, and for which China abstained, he said: “shouldn’t those countries that advocated humanitarian interventions and pushed for regime changes be held responsible? Shouldn’t they engage in serious self-reflection?”
China’s move to raise the Uyghur issue follows on the heels of President Donald Trump’s “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom” event, which took place at U.N. headquarters on Monday during the Climate Action Summit. One of the event’s featured speakers, Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur woman whose father has been imprisoned, said: “Beijing believes Islam is a sickness to be treated with an iron fist.”
The issue of China’s suppression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang had been brought up once before by the United States and Germany in the Security Council this June, but behind closed doors. Diplomats spoke anonymously of China being furious about this. But as the U.S. has given increased attention to the topic, they apparently decided to attempt to get ahead on the debate inside the U.N. This was the first instance of the topic being raised in a public discussion of the council, according to research conducted using a database of all statements made in the council.
The U.K’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., Karen Piece, asked for the floor following China to state that she was also concerned about the situation in Xinjiang. Unlike Cohen, Pierce was clearly not reading from prepared remarks.
Nevertheless, the situation of Uyghurs in China is far from being part of the Security Council’s formal agenda, which is adopted on a monthly basis under the auspices of the council’s rotating monthly presidency. The proposed agenda is either approved unanimously, or with a procedural vote requiring nine of fifteen council members to vote in favor, in which veto power does not apply. Since veto power, which China wields, is irrelevant when setting the Security Council’s agenda, this topic may eventually make its way onto the formal agenda. The United States’ next presidency of the council will take place in December.
Today’s discussion was held under the agenda item “cooperation between the United Nations and regional and subregional organizations in maintaining international peace and security” — while the specific agenda was “the contribution of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in countering terrorist threats.”
China’s “expanding influence in international organizations,” including the United Nations, was the subject of a bill introduced to the Senate last Thursday by Senators Sen. Todd Young [R-IN] and Jeff Merkely [D-OR], calling for the Director of National Intelligence to submit a report to Congress on the topic.
In June, the United States, United Kingdom, and other western countries lodged a formal complaint to Secretary General Antonio Guterres after he authorized a visit of the UN’s top counter-terrorism official, Vladirimir Voronkov, to China, in a trip that included a stop in Urumqi. Following Voronkov’s visit, when asked for his views on the situation in Xinjiang, Guterres said human rights must be protected in counter-terrorism activities. More recently, human rights groups issued an open letter to Guterres admonishing him for not publicly denouncing China’s repressive policies, saying China was “using [Voronkov’s] visit in its public messaging to further bolster its false counterterrorism narrative.”