UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres raised the plight of ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang region during talks with Chinese leaders and stressed that China must fully respect human rights, his spokesman said Monday.

Guterres faced calls to speak out on human rights during his visit to Beijing where he attended a summit on Saturday of China’s prized Belt and Road Initiative and held talks with President Xi Jinping.

António Guterres
UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Photo: Crossroads Foundation Photos/Flickr.

The UN chief delivered a three-point message that stressed that human rights must be upheld in the fight against extremism, while recognising China’s sovereignty and condemning terrorism.

“Human rights must be fully respected in the fight against terrorism and in the prevention of violent extremism,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

“Each community must feel that its identity is respected and that if fully belongs to the nation as a whole.”

As many as one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are being held in internment camps in Xinjiang, according to a group of experts cited last year by the United Nations.

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Beijing claims the camps are “vocational training centers” to steer people away from extremism and reintegrate them, in a region plagued by violence blamed on Uighur separatists or Islamists.

Guterres pressed to speak out

In the runup to the trip, Guterres had met with UN ambassadors from the United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Turkey who urged him to raise the situation in Xinjiang during his meetings, UN sources said.

That presented Guterres with a diplomatic challenge to discuss the ultra-sensitive matter with China, the UN’s second largest financial contributor and a veto-wielding Security Council member.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet last month complained that she had yet to be given the green light by China for a fact-finding mission to the region following a request made in December.

Guterres told Chinese leaders that he “fully stands by the initiatives” of his rights chief, Dujarric said, but there was no announcement on dispatching an independent assessment team to Xinjiang.

Stéphane Dujarric
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. Photo: Screenshot.

Dujarric described the talks as “very cordial” and “frank,” adding that the dialogue will continue.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth last week wrote a scathing op-ed about Guterres, accusing him of being silent on human rights and firmly siding with quiet diplomacy since he became UN chief in January 2017.

Roth said Guterres had yet to speak out publicly on the plight of the Uighurs. “Instead, he praises China’s development prowess and rolls out the red carpet for President Xi Jinping.”

Guterres has visited China four times as UN chief.

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