China warned United Nations delegates not to attend a panel event on human rights violations in Xinjiang last month, where Beijing faced criticism for detaining a reported million ethnic minority people in extrajudicial “reeducation” centres.

UpdateDiplomats, activists decry Chinese ‘threats’ at UN rights council

A letter obtained by NGO Human Rights Watch from Chinese ambassador Yu Jianhua cautioned delegates against joining the meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. In the appeal dated March 7, Yu said: “In the interest of our bilateral relations and continued multilateral cooperation, I hereby kindly request your delegation, bearing in mind the political motivation behind the above-mentioned side event, not to co-sponsor, participate in or be present at this side event.”

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File photo: UN.

The panel event was jointly hosted by the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom on March 13, during the last UN Human Rights Council session held between February 25 and March 22. It came a week after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made a second request to gain access to the region.

See also: China rejects UN recommendations on death penalty, freedoms in Xinjiang and Tibet

Yu dismissed the allegations of human rights violations as “groundless” and criticised the event as interference in Beijing’s internal affairs. The ambassador added that the event contradicted the UN principles of cooperation and dialogue between nations.

According to Human Rights Watch, Chinese diplomats also personally approached some delegates from the global south to caution them not to attend the event.

“For years China has worked behind the scenes to weaken UN human rights mechanisms,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “But the growing global outcry over its mistreatment of Xinjiang’s Muslims has sent China into panic mode, using public as well as private pressure to block concerted international action.”

China did not accept 62 of the 346 recommendations made in the UN Universal Periodic Review last November, saying they are inconsistent with national conditions and laws, and “politically biased or untruthful.” Of those not accepted, the majority addressed China’s continued use of the death penalty, restrictions on individual freedoms, or the subjugation of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.

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The predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic group are among the minorities targetted in what Beijing claims is a campaign to tackle unrest and separatism. The UN says a million Uighurs have been arbitrarily detained in extralegal “political reeducation camps,” whilst Human Rights Watch reports that surveillance and repression in Xinjiang has increased dramatically since 2016. The NGO says that biometric data is collected from residents, passports are confiscated, religious activity restricted, “abnormally long” beards, public prayers and Muslim veils are banned, whilst vehicle and mobile phone owners are made to install trackers.

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.