(Bloomberg) -- Qatar withdrew from a letter signed by dozens of countries expressing support for China’s human-rights record despite growing international condemnation over its detention of as many as two million ethnic Muslim Uighurs.
Qatar informed United Nations Human Rights Council President Coly Seck of its decision to withdraw from the July 12 letter, which was signed by mostly majority-Muslim nations, according to a copy of the correspondence seen by Bloomberg. Several calls and e-mails to Qatar’s government communications office and the UN mission weren’t returned.
“Taking into account our focus on compromise and mediation, we believe that co-authorizing the aforementioned letter would compromise our foreign policy key priorities,” Ambassador Ali Al-Mansouri, Qatar’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, wrote to Seck on July 18. “In this regard, we wish to maintain a neutral stance and we offer our mediation and facilitation services.” His signature also appeared on the July 12 letter supporting China.
It wasn’t clear what prompted the change of heart. Qatar, the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, would be loathe to damage ties with China, which was the country’s third-largest trading partner in 2018 with some $13 billion in total commerce, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani visited Beijing in January, when President Xi Jinping addressed him as an “old friend and a good friend,” according to reports.
But more than two years into a diplomatic and economic embargo by a four-nation, Saudi-led coalition, Doha has also stressed its desire to build ties with the West, including European nations and the U.S.
Who Are the Uighurs?: QuickTake
Thirty-seven countries, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, signed the letter defending Xi’s government and dismissing its ongoing crackdown on Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang.
It was sent after 22 mostly Western nations mounted the first collective global criticism of China’s policy toward Uighurs. They urged Beijing to end the mass detentions and expressed concern over “widespread surveillance and restrictions” on Uighurs in a July 8 statement to another UN body, the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The re-education camps in Xinjiang, a region home to some 10 million Uighurs, have prompted calls for sanctions against Beijing from U.S. lawmakers, human rights advocates and religious groups. The State Department says as many as two million Uighurs are being held in the camps, a number China contests even though it hasn’t disclosed an official figure.
Xi’s government has defended the crackdown as necessary to combat terrorism and has used Xinjiang as a laboratory for its sophisticated mass surveillance system, from facial recognition technology to security checkpoints at markets.
Read Bloomberg’s reporting from the ground in Xinjiang
Qatar has been caught in the crosshairs of the Uighur crackdown before.
Earlier this year, activists worked to stop the deportation of Uighur advocate Ablikim Yusuf from Qatar back to China, allowing him to leave for the U.S. instead. Yusuf had posted a video online from Doha’s international airport asking for help to avoid being sent home, where he would face punishment for his advocacy on behalf of other Uighurs.
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