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Nowhere to Turn for China’s Uyghurs

Uyghur elders and child. Credit: Todenhoff/cc by 2.0

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 4 2013 (IPS) - 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.

"The Uyghurs' plight in Xinjiang should be viewed through the prism of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." -- Sean R. Roberts of George Washington University

A recent damning report by the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) was taken up last week by the U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.S. 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 U.N. might begin with the mere initiation of such a dialogue,” said Sean R. Roberts, Uyghur expert and director of the International Development Studies Programme 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 U.N.,” 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 percent 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 realisation.”

On Apr. 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 U.N. and the U.S. 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 suppress, the more Uyghurs desire self-determination,” said Phillips, “China has been creating its own enemies, who were not in existence before.”

Action from the U.N. 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 U.N. 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 [U.N.] 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.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martin-Su/100003111970994 Martin Su

    The organizations complaining about China’s reasonable treatment of Uighurs have no credibility. Has any Uighur died at the hand of the Chinese government? No.

    Instead, we have Israeli soldiers shooting and killing Palestinians by the hundreds each year and these organizations say nothing.

    Give me a break. What’s the big idea about nitpicking China for some unsupported allegations of job discrimination when you can see all the dead Palestinian bodies piling up at the morgue due to Israeli brutality?

    Try to focus on real human rights violations and not some ridiculous political smearing of China. Thank you.

  • wurniy8342

    Uyghurs have multiple benefits not available to others like government reserved jobs, permitted to have more than one child, lower taxes, etc. Many of the Chinese authorities happen to be Uyghurs as well. Uyghurs are known to originate from northern Mongolia. The Xinjiang region is also home to many indigenous ethnic groups such as the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, mulitiple northern “Han” groups, Hui, etc. for thousands of years.

  • Ahmad

    Hi Martin,

    Thank you for interesting Uyghur Human rights.Actually I found that you don’t understand China policy for Uyghur and other ethnic group,I come from East turkistan(AKA XUAR),I know what is happening in that area, and I believe that WUC , government said we give better policy to Uyghur ,actually nothing ,discrimination ,difficult to find job for Uyghur people,because he is Uyghur ,
    if you really interesting you can see
    about 85% job position preparing for han chinese ,
    thank you

  • Attila

    China has its own agenda when it comes to XUAR and how to treat the Uighurs, it’s through oppressing the people’s basic civil rights, which in turn causes riots and unnecessary bloodshed, which then fuels the Chinese liberation army’s presence further in the region that suppresses even more. You don’t see Uighurs fighting against the Chinese authorities physically because we are not even given the opportunity to do so, we are oppressed to a point that we don’t trust each other, we are afraid to speak up, we are afraid to plan meetings and debate about things in a democratic manner, how do you expect a society like that to unite and fight against a regime so powerful in their eyes ?

    Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank have their share of the freedom, they can do things that Uighurs in XUAR simply cannot, such as forming the PLO, Fatah or Hamas and staging fights to regain their homeland.

    If you ask which is more serious, of course the Palestinian situation is worse, they have been going through this for decades and countless people have died, but their voices ? They are being heard constantly all over the globe, so people like you know what is going on. In XUAR, countless people have died in the hands of Chinese central government over the decades also, but in different ways, (if you are interested look up the atomic bomb testing at Lop Nur and its effects on the region, the best sources are Japanese researchers who were not allowed to research from within China, so their data are taken from Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Kyrgystan.)

    An important point to be made is that the world knows about the Palestinians while the Uighurs are ignored.

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