Australia condemns Uighur human rights abuses but stops short on sanctions

Australia and New Zealand have released a joint statement condemning human rights abuses in Xinjiang, hours after the United States, Canada, the European Union and Britain imposed sanctions against Chinese officials.

A rally in Hong Kong in December 2019 to show support for Uighurs in China.

A rally in Hong Kong in December 2019 to show support for Uighurs in China. Source: AFP/Getty Images

Australia and New Zealand have condemned human rights abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. 

But they are not following international allies by imposing sanctions on Chinese officials.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne and her Kiwi counterpart Nanaia Mahuta issued a joint statement on Tuesday, reiterating grave concerns over "credible reports" about abuses committed by the Chinese government.

The pair cited restrictions on the freedom of religion, mass surveillance, extra-judicial detentions, forced labour and sterilisation.

They welcomed sanctions announced overnight by the United States, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom, in what was the first such coordinated Western action against Beijing under new US President Joe Biden.

"We share these countries' deep concerns, which are held across the Australian and New Zealand communities," Ms Payne and Ms Mahuta said in a joint statement.

"In particular, there is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation."

The trans-Tasman nations have called on China to respect the human rights of Uighur people and other religious and ethnic minorities since reports about the Xinjiang detention camps began to emerge in 2018.

"Today, we underscore the importance of transparency and accountability, and reiterate our call on China to grant meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for United Nations experts, and other independent observers," the ministers said.

The statement has drawn the ire of Beijing. 

A spokesperson for China's embassy in Canberra accusing Australia of engaging in a "despicable tactic of smearing China". 

"The allegations, in disregard of facts and based on disinformation and lies, are unwarranted attacks against China and out of pure political manipulation," the spokesperson said. 

"They once again fully expose the deep-seated ideological prejudices and the despicable tactic of smearing China on the Australian side."

Beijing denies allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

In another sign of tense relations, Beijing has also called on the Australian government to “reflect upon and address its own problems, in particular the killings of innocent civilians by Australian overseas military personnel, the worsening situation of racial discrimination, the long-standing insufficiency in the protection of the rights of Aboriginal peoples as well as the inhumane treatment of detainees in the offshore detention centres”.

'Crimes against humanity'

The coordinated effort by the US, EU, Canada and Britain on Monday appeared to be early fruit in a concerted US diplomatic push to confront China in league with allies, a core element of Mr Biden's still evolving China policy.

Senior US administration officials have said they are in daily contact with governments in Europe on China-related issues, something they call the "Europe roadshow."

"Amid growing international condemnation, (China) continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in statement ahead of meetings with EU and NATO ministers in Brussels this week.

Canada's foreign ministry said: "Mounting evidence points to systemic, state-led human rights violations by Chinese authorities."

Activists and UN rights experts say at least 1 million Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang. The activists and some Western politicians accuse China of using torture, forced labour and sterilisations. China says its camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.

The EU was the first to impose sanctions on Monday on four Chinese officials, including a top security director, and one entity, a decision later mirrored by Britain and Canada.

Those also targeted by the United States were Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and another senior official in the region, Wang Junzheng.

The US had already last year designated for sanctions the top official in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who was not targeted by the other Western allies on Monday, to avoid a larger diplomatic dispute, experts and diplomats said.

The foreign ministers of Canada and Britain issued a joint statement with Mr Blinken, saying the three were united in demanding that Beijing end its "repressive practices" in Xinjiang.

Evidence of abuses was "overwhelming", including satellite imagery, eyewitness testimony, and the Chinese government's own documents, they said.

The EU has sought to avoid confrontation with Beijing and Monday's sanctions were the first significant measures since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, although Brussels targeted two computer hackers and a technology firm in 2020 as part of broader cyber sanctions.

China retaliates

Beijing's reprisal was swift.

Retaliation included sanctions on European politicians, the EU's main foreign policy decision-making body known as the Political and Security Committee and two institutes.

German politician Reinhard Butikofer, who chairs the European Parliament's delegation to China, was among the most high-profile figures to be hit. The non-profit Alliance of Democracies Foundation, founded by former NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was on the list, according to a statement by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Netherlands summoned China's ambassador to The Hague after Beijing announced its measures on 10 Europeans, while the European Parliament, along with German, Dutch, Belgian and other foreign ministers, rejected the Chinese retaliation.

"As long as human rights are being violated, I cannot stay silent. These sanctions prove that China is sensitive to pressure. Let this be an encouragement to all my European colleagues: Speak out!" Dutch politician Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, who was put on China's sanctions list, said on Twitter.

Restricted from entering China or doing business with it, Beijing accused its targets of seriously harming the country's sovereignty over Xinjiang.

All 27 EU governments agreed to the bloc's punitive measures, but Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, called them "harmful" and "pointless". 

Additonal reporting by AAP and Jarni Blakkarly. 

6 min read
Published 23 March 2021 at 7:47am
Source: Reuters, SBS