Nowhere to turn for China's Uyghurs
By Audrey Petit
UNITED NATIONS - For years, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China's arid northwest has been the setting of clashes with the central government and ethnic violence between Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese. In fact, critics say the government has used anti-terrorism legislation and other means to justify major violations of the human rights of Uyghur people, a Turkic-speaking minority group.
A recent damning report by the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) was taken up last week by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva, composed of 18 independent experts in charge of monitoring the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR), ratified by China in 2001.
“The UN is a vital forum in which peoples can voice their human
rights concerns at the international level, when all national levels have been exhausted,” Michael Phillips of the WUC told IPS.
“This is currently the case in China,” he said.
According to the WUC, Uyghurs in China are victims of job discrimination, limitations on the use of Uyghur language and on religious and cultural practices, forced disappearances, organ harvesting and unlawful house searches by Chinese authorities.
In stark contrast, a white paper on Progress in China's Human Rights in 2012, released on May 14 by the Chinese State Council, stresses the government’s achievements in guaranteeing religion freedom and autonomy in ethnic minorities’ regions.
The Chinese constitution affirms religious freedom, but also specifies that “the state protects normal religious activities”. According to the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report, released this month by the US Department of State, this principle is applied “in a manner that does not meet international human-rights standards” and its respect “declined during the year, particularly in Tibetan areas and the XUAR”.
“There is absolutely no communication between the Chinese state and Uyghur organisations. The role of the UN might begin with the mere initiation of such a dialogue,” said Sean R Roberts, Uyghur expert and director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University.
“The Uyghurs' plight in Xinjiang should be viewed through the prism of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)," he told IPS.
"While China has ratified this declaration, it also refutes that it has any indigenous populations within its borders. That said, the Uyghurs definitely qualify as an indigenous people by the working definition of such peoples adopted by the UN,” he added.
Leveraging on the UNDRIP, said Roberts, would allow the discussion to move from national sovereignty to indigenous peoples’ right to free prior informed consent on large development projects in the region.
Xinjiang, often called Eastern Turkestan by Uyghur advocates, is rich in mineral resources, oil and gas. According to the state-run website Tianshannet, the region has 138 of the 171 known ores of the country, accounts for one third of China’s oil and gas resources, and for more than 40% of its national coal reserves.
However, Roberts said that the primary reasons for the government’s interest in this vast, scarcely populated and strategically located region lie in its capacity to absorb China’s growing population and its potential role as a gateway for economic expansion towards the west.
“Already there are steps being taken to develop the urban centres of Urumqi and Kashgar as northern and southern commercial centres oriented towards Central Asia and beyond,” he added, “but the Uyghurs’ habitation of its historical homeland is an obstacle to their realization."
On April 23, another episode of violence took place in Maralbeshi county (Bachu in Chinese), approximately 1,200 km southwest of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The clash left 21 people dead, according to Chinese authorities, who attributed it to the action of terrorist groups.
In the paper “Imaginary Terrorism?”, Roberts underlines the great impact that the recognition by the UN and the US of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organisation in 2002 has had on the debate between Uyghur advocacy groups and the Chinese government.
Although there is little or no evidence that last year's clashes in the region are the work of any terrorist organisations, he said, “There is a strong possibility that further desperation within the Uyghur population could eventually lead to the creation of such groups in the future."
Roberts also noted that even the most radical Uyghurs opposing Chinese policies don’t seem to be attracted by transnational Jihadist ideology, being instead focused on the Chinese state.
“The more they are suppressed, the more Uyghurs desire self-determination,” said Phillips, “China has been creating its own enemies, who were not in existence before."
Action from the UN is urgently needed if, as the WUC report states, “the large influx of Han Chinese migration since 1949 … has resulted in a substantial shift in the demographic composition of the XUAR from 6% Han Chinese and 75% Uyghur in 1953, to approximately 40% Han Chinese and 45% Uyghur today”.
“However, past experiences working with other UN bodies suggest that the Chinese authorities will not likely meaningfully implement the recommendations made to them by the committee,” Phillips said.
According to experts of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva contacted by IPS, “Several [UN] Special Procedures have requested to visit China to address different issues, but are awaiting invitations. The High Commissioner for Human Rights … has appealed to the authorities to adopt holistic strategies that address the grievances and concerns of minorities in China.”
National and international mechanisms covering the issue already exist, such as the IESCR and the International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination (both ratified by China), the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (signed in 1998, but not ratified yet) and the national law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, adopted in 1984.
“Laws appear to afford these rights, but once you scratch below the surface, any autonomy … has been completely undermined and eroded by contradictory regulations,” Phillips told IPS.
“Amending the laws is vital, but unless they are meaningfully implemented, the amended laws would not be worth the paper they're written upon.”