Intense Pushback from Activists Forces Xinjiang Governor to Cancel Europe Trip

In what is being lauded as a victory for the Uyghur community, Xinjiang governor Erkin Tuniyaz has reportedly canceled his planned meetings with European officials this week after intense pushback from lawmakers and human rights activists. Tuniyaz has been sanctioned by the U.S. government for his role in what the U.N. described as “serious human rights violations” in Xinjiang that “may amount to crimes against humanity.” He was initially expected to visit London, Paris, and Brussels over the next week, as Beijing launches a new charm offensive in Europe. Cristina Gallardo from Politico reported on the cancellation of Tuniyaz’s U.K. visit:

Erkin Tuniyaz, who had not been invited by the U.K. government, has decided against traveling to London, according to a U.K. official and campaigners pressing against his visit. Tuniyaz has also cancelled a trip to France and Belgium planned for later this week.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman told reporters on Monday that Tuniyaz would meet with Foreign Office (FCDO) officials who would convey their “abhorrence” about the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

[…Then on Tuesday a]n FCDO spokesperson said: “We understand the Governor of Xinjiang has cancelled his visit to the UK. The UK Government will continue to use all opportunities to take action against China’s unacceptable human rights abuses in Xinjiang.” [Source]

According to Le Monde, Tuniyaz was scheduled to attend a reception in Paris on Friday, organized by the Chinese embassy in France, before visiting Brussels from Sunday to Tuesday of next week. In Brussels, he was also scheduled to meet officials from the European External Action Service and hold a briefing with media and scholars. Invitees to the event in Paris were told it was canceled due to “an important domestic agenda,” and the Chinese mission to the E.U. stated that the Brussels trip was “postponed […] due to scheduling reasons.”

Prior to the cancellation of the London visit, many Uyghurs had been calling on the British government to cancel its meeting with Tuniyaz. Rahima Mahmut and other activists organized protests outside of the U.K. Foreign Office. Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, called the planned visit “shocking and incomprehensible,” adding: “Proven complicity in crimes against humanity and genocide must be a clear red line, and must lead to justice and accountability instead of engagement.”

Beyond the moral outrage, some leading politicians and activists questioned the strategy behind the original decision to meet with Tuniyaz. “While engagement with the People’s Republic of China remains necessary in general, we strongly question the wisdom of officially meeting with someone personally involved in the persecution of Uyghurs,” said Reinhard Bütikofer and Miriam Lexmann, members of the European Parliament. In the New Statesman, Rayhan Asat argued that regardless of whether meeting Tuniyaz was a good-faith attempt by the British government to address human rights violations in Xinjiang, the meeting would only allow Beijing to legitimize its policies in the region:

[T]he Foreign Office in London has attempted to justify meeting Tuniyaz (who is Uyghur himself) on the grounds that officials will press him for change. This is a legitimate goal, but since its inception, the Xinjiang chairman’s office has been purely symbolic, a token gesture of the Chinese Han government towards the “autonomy” and ethnic self-governance of the Uyghur region. Appealing to Tuniyaz for change is pointless.

[…] In response to questions from MPs James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, indicated that he was seeking feedback from civil society groups about Tuniyaz’s visit. However, this invitation looks more like an attempt to legitimise rather than to critically assess Tuniyaz’s visit. None of us who advocate for Uyghur human rights want to lend credibility to this ill-conceived meeting with a genocidal bureaucrat who has no will to change the system he serves.

I am not dismissing an attempt in good faith at a solution. There is simply no indication that this meeting will be anything other than an empty example of “engagement” for the Chinese government to gesture towards while changing nothing in the Uyghur homeland. It would only serve the Communist Party’s goal of further dehumanising Uyghur people and lying about its genocidal policies. When China finally admitted to imprisoning Uyghurs in “vocational training centres” it used Tuniyaz as its spokesman. He told the world that Uyghurs are radicalised and uneducated, and that in the camps “they learned basic practical skills and graduated from the centre with a better quality of life”. [Source]

Lawyers and lawmakers also mobilized to increase pressure on the British government. Lawyers representing Erbakit Otarbay, a Kazakh man who says he was tortured in Xinjiang, submitted evidence to the London Metropolitan Police’s war crimes team and petitioned the attorney-general to arrest Tuniyaz upon his arrival in the U.K. Amnesty International’s China Researcher Alkan Akad stated that “judicial authorities in European states should launch their own investigations into whether Erkin Tuniyaz has responsibility for crimes under international law, including torture, or other serious human rights violations that would warrant a prosecution.” The U.K. Foreign Office said it expected Tuniyaz to travel on a diplomatic passport, and it was unclear to what extent the threat of arrest played a role in the cancellation of his meeting with the government. BBC political correspondent Damian Grammaticas reported on the legal argument for arresting Tuniyaz:

[Erbakit Otarbay’s] legal team say Erkin Tuniyaz, as the governor of Xinjiang, is not entitled to diplomatic immunity because he holds a position of “state responsibility” and was “directly responsible for the implementation of policies designed to restrict the basic rights and freedoms of Uyghur people”.

They say torture is a “universal jurisdiction” offence that can be prosecuted in any country, but the attorney general must approve it.

[…In a letter to the attorney-general, seven MPs wrote:] “We hope you will give this application serious consideration. In the absence of an international mechanism to hold to account those responsible for Uyghur abuses, we must seize every opportunity to ensure accountability”. [Source]

As the number-two official in Xinjiang, Tuniyaz has played a central role in managing and defending the concentration camps. A leaked internal document from the Xinjiang Police Files shows that he exhorted the government entity overseeing camp operations and policing to ensure the “absolute security” of the camps and their “anti-escape measures,” directly implicating him in the enforcement of the state’s repression. In 2019, Tuniyaz also defended the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang before the U.N. Human Rights Council, touting the amenities in the camps just as Xi Jinping was revealed to have ordered the “organs of dictatorship” to show “absolutely no mercy” in Xinjiang.

The planned visits would have coincided with several other events this week that will put China’s human rights record under international scrutiny. This weekend, Wang Yi is expected to speak at the annual Munich Security Conference, where European leaders will discuss regional security against the backdrop of Russian aggression in Ukraine and China’s policy of “pro-Russian neutrality.” Prior to that, from February 15-16, China will defend its record before the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in a test of its compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, for the first time since China’s last review in 2014. Outlining China’s efforts to bamboozle the U.N., William Nee described in The Diplomat how China is increasingly employing government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) to stifle criticism of its human rights record

Deploying GONGOs is an obstructionist tactic the Chinese government increasingly uses when U.N. committees assess China’s performance in implementing the treaties it has ratified. For the upcoming CESCR review, at least 23 GONGOs or other entities tied to the party-state submitted reports to the Committee as “civil society organizations” – compared with just four such submissions for the 2014 CESCR review.  Like fake Luis Vuitton bags at a bootleg market, these fake NGOs flood the market and diminish the value of the real products. Committee members waste valuable time reading their reports, listening to their interventions, and trying to decipher which NGOs are real and which are fake.

Not only does the Chinese government have multiple opportunities to bombard the CESCR with its “discourse power” using its army of GONGOs, but it also benefits from a Trojan Horse inside: a veteran Chinese diplomat, Shen Yongxiang, is actually a Committee member. While Shen is experienced and well educated, according to U.N. rules, members serving on U.N. treaty bodies should be independent and impartial. But, as a new report from the International Service for Human Rights points out, individuals from the PRC serving on United Nations treaty bodies often have deep, long-standing affiliations with the Chinese government, or even official roles in the Communist Party. [Source]

Finbarr Bermingham from the South China Morning Post reported on another major event this week, the resumption of the EU-China human rights dialogue

EU sources confirmed that talks would take place in Brussels at the end of [this] week, following a pledge to resume them during the EU-China summit last April.

The Chinese delegation will be led by a deputy director general from Beijing’s Department of International Organisations and Conferences under the country’s foreign ministry, separate sources confirmed, while the EU will be represented by human rights staff in its External Action Service (EEAS).

The dialogue will be the 38th edition of the prickly discussions, which were suspended after the EU sanctioned four Chinese government officials for alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in March 2021. [Source]

However, it is unlikely that these dialogues will allow the E.U. to persuade the Chinese government to reverse course on its human rights policies in Xinjiang. In an interview with the Global Times on Monday, Chinese ambassador to France and Monaco Lu Shaye said, “[T]he reality is that neither side can change the other. So why can’t we put it aside and not let such differences hinder the cooperation between the two sides on common interests? I think Europe should not try to ‘hit China with an ideological club’ and expect cooperation in return.” Andrew Stroehlein, European Media and Editorial Director at Human Rights Watch, sharply criticized the dialogues, characterizing them as pointless, and even counterproductive to the pursuit of real improvements in human rights:

These bilateral meetings have been a recurring exercise in pointlessness for decades. There have been 37 previous rounds of such dialogues, and they’ve contributed zero to human rights progress in China. In fact, the human rights situation in China has only deteriorated.

The EU’s human rights dialogues with China are actually worse than pointless, because they give EU leaders an excuse to avoid discussing China’s abuses at the highest levels, where it matters most.

They can brush it off with, “Well, we discussed that elsewhere already,” and human rights are thus disconnected from issues Beijing actually cares about, like trade. With no EU leverage points or benchmarks in the mix, the dialogues are simply a box-ticking exercise, held with no ambition to secure positive change.

Worst of all, perhaps, the dialogues give Beijing a propaganda coup. Chinese officials can say they’re open to talking about human rights. It helps Beijing look good internationally – while committing crimes against humanity back home. [Source]


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