UNITED NATIONS (AP) — China and the West clashed at the U.N. human rights committee Tuesday over claims that Beijing systematically oppresses ethnic minority Muslims in far western Xinjiang province.
Belarus read a statement on behalf of 54 countries commending "China's remarkable achievements in the field of human rights" and taking note "that terrorism, separatism and religious extremism has caused enormous damage to people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang, which has seriously infringed upon human rights, including right to life, health and development."
Britain read a statement on behalf of 23 countries that shared concerns with the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination about "credible reports" of mass detention, "efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices, mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uighurs, and other human rights violations and abuses in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region."
The clash in the General Assembly's human rights committee continued afterward at separate press briefings by the opposing sides.
More than one million Uighurs have been detained in camps since 2017 and criticism has grown over their interment, as well as that of other Muslims.
China's government insists the detention sites are "vocational" centers aimed at training and skills development. In a report earlier this year to counter criticism of internment camps and other oppressive security in the traditionally Islamic region, China said it had arrested nearly 13,000 people it described as "terrorists" and had broken up hundreds of "terrorist gangs" in Xinjiang since 2014.
The Belarus statement — whose supporters include Pakistan, Russia and Egypt — backed China's "counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers." It noted that there has not been a single "terrorist attack" in Xinjiang in the past three years "and people there enjoy a stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment and security."
The Western statement — whose supporters include the United States., France and Germany — called on the Chinese government to respect human rights including freedom of religion in Xinjiang and throughout China, and to urgently implement the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination's recommendations "including by refraining from the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and members of other Muslim communities." It also called on China to allow U.N. rights experts "unfettered, meaningful access to Xinjiang."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce, U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft and German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen then spoke to reporters.
They said no resolution on the Uighurs has been proposed for adoption by the General Assembly's human rights committee, but Pierce said: "This will not be the last we've heard of this important issue."
Craft said: "The United States condemns the detainment of over one million Uighurs and will continue to work closely with our partners to condemn the violations of human rights no matter where they occur."
Heusgen said what's needed now is for U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to be allowed "unimpeded access to all the detention camps," adding that he didn't know why China won't allow unimpeded access.
China's U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun, speaking to a group of reporters shortly after, said the government has invited Bachelet to visit China, including Xinjiang, many times, and is in contact with her office. He accused Western nations of exerting "pressure over U.N. officials" not to visit.
Zhang was also critical of Western countries continuing to raise the Uighur issue.
"No country is perfect on human rights. It's natural that we have different understanding, we have differences," he said.
But Zhang said differences should be discussed and hopefully narrowed through dialogue.
"What's certain is that a confrontational approach leads to nowhere," he said. "Nobody will win through such confrontational practices."
Zhang indicated the Uighur issue could also impact U.S.-China trade talks where there has been progress.
"it's hard to imagine that on the one hand, you are trying to seek to have a trade deal and on the other hand you are making use of any issues, especially human rights issues, to blame the other," he said. "I do not think it's helpful for having a good solution to the issue of the trade talks."
U.S. ambassador Craft, asked about the possible impact on trade talks, replied: "Well I would be standing here regardless if it was China, wherever it is. Wherever there are human rights abuses, we would be here in defense of those that are suffering."