A coalition of predominantly Western countries joined together to condemn the Chinese government for the mass detention of ethnic minority communities in the Xinjiang region in a formal statement sent to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights last week.
"The joint statement is important not only for Xinjiang's population, but for people around the world who depend on the UN's leading rights body to hold even the most powerful countries to account," John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch, told CNN.
The letter, signed by 22 countries including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan, was the first major international effort to take a stand against China’s persecution of ethnic minorities. Made public on Wednesday, according to the New York Times, the letter also called on the Chinese government to grant the UN access to the Xinjiang region to investigate the accusations.
An estimated 2 million people — most of whom are Muslim, including ethnic groups such as the Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyzs — are believed to be held in “re-education” camps, where it is suspected they are being violently tortured and indoctrinated with communist ideas. However, China has maintained that the camps are “vocational training centers” aimed at combating extremism, and has consistently denied these accusations.
“Governments are increasingly recognizing the suffering of millions of people in Xinjiang, with families torn apart and living in fear, and a Chinese state that believes it can commit mass violations uncontested. The joint statement demonstrates that Beijing is wrong to think it can escape international scrutiny for its abuses in Xinjiang, and the pressure will only increase until these appalling abuses end,” Fisher added.
However, several countries have come to China’s defense.
Ambassadors from 37 countries signed a reactionary letter praising China for its strides in the protection of human rights, which they sent to the president of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on July 12, just two days later.
"We commend China's remarkable achievements in the field of human rights by adhering to the people-centered development philosophy and protecting and promoting human rights through development," the letter read, using similar rhetoric to that promoted by the Chinese government.
The supporting countries also claimed that those who condemned China in the preceding letter aimed to politicize issues of human rights. Many of the three dozen countries that signed the rebuttal letter, such as North Korea, Russia, and Myanmar, have been accused of human rights abuses of their own.
"The pro-China signatories include a rogues' gallery of rights abusing countries that have zero credibility when it comes to human rights," Elaine Pearson, Australia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to CNN.
While none of the 22 countries that signed the original letter condeming China were Muslim-majority countries, several of the Muslim-majority countries that expressed support for China are part of the list of nations known for violating the human rights of civilians and persecuting ethnic minorities, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Sudan.
"It's not enough for [China] to say it themselves, they want to get their allies and supporters internationally to also back that claim ... particularly in the Muslim world, where I think they need to make sure that the wider Islamic community doesn't start to question what's happening in Xinjiang, to see China as anti-Islam,” James Leibold, an Australian professor in the study of modern Chinese history and society, told CNN.
While major changes in the crisis remain to be seen, the renewed focus of the international community on China’s human rights abuses could be the first step to a peaceful solution.