UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has made clear—if it wasn’t clear enough already—his intention to continue to ignore one of the world’s worst human rights crises unfolding in plain sight.

Guterres was in Beijing last week attending the Belt and Road Forum—the second of such events aimed at bolstering support for Xi Jinping’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative. This project involves significant Chinese infrastructure development and investment in dozens of countries sprawling across the globe.

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

In his keynote address, Guterres praised the initiative, arguing that it could serve as an effective means of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as well as combating climate change. Notably absent from the remarks and from Guterres’s visit generally: human rights.

Since 2017, China has detained an estimated one and two million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in internment camps across the Uyghur Autonomous Region as a means of significantly eroding the Uyghur identity. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect recently argued that what is happening to Uyghurs could amount to crimes against humanity.

Despite media highlighting the fact that the Secretary-General “raised” concerns about the plight of Uyghurs on the sidelines of the Forum, it was significantly overshadowed by indications that it was not a major part of his discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, or in any discussions throughout his time there.

And responses from his spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, following the trip merely reinforce one’s sense that the treatment of Uyghurs is not a primary issue of concern. On Monday, Dujarric responded to a question about whether the Uyghur issue was raised, stating that Guterres, “discussed all relevant issues… and that includes the situation in Xinjiang.”

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

Most troublesome, however, was the way Dujarric labouriously included the fact that the issue was raised in the context of “the full respect for the unity and territorial integrity of China; condemnation of terrorist attacks, as no cause or grievance can justify them; and that human rights must be fully respected in the fight against terrorism and in the prevention of violent extremism.”

Setting aside the problem with Guterres only cursorily raising the issue is that the latter half of Dujarric’s response sounds eerily similar to the justifications used by Chinese officials themselves when defending the camps.

There is no evidence to support the claim that the facilities exist for the purpose of counter-terrorism—mountains of evidence, however, continue to leak out each day painting an unquestionably bleaker picture including forced labour, mistreatment, torture and numerous mysterious deaths.

It was noted that Guterres “fully stands by the initiatives of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet,” but while the attention from the High Commissioner towards China has been consistent, it would send a much stronger signal for Guterres himself to offer concrete support like pushing for Security Council action, rather than simply “stand[ing] by her initiatives” that have so far yielded unsurprisingly little cooperation from the Chinese.

Uyghur Uighur Xinjiang detention centre reeducation camp
File photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account, April 2017, showing detainees at a camp in Lop county, Hotan prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: RFA, Oct. 2, 2018; cf. WaybackMachine Internet Archive, April 17, 2017.

It’s also important to note that her predecessor quit the post prematurely in part due to his frustration with global inaction on significant rights crises, saying he would rather step down than compromise on human rights. The prospect of Ms Bachelet’s succeeding without Guterres’s engagement on the issue looks bleak indeed.

We must acknowledge the tremendous weight on the shoulders of the Secretary-General in a year like 2019, with record levels of international displacement, the unabating wave of the far right, reactionary nationalism in Europe and elsewhere, and a climate not responding well to our own hubris, threatening our very existence.

Given these complex problems that lie outside of easy control, it still behoves the leader of an institution founded upon the principles of human rights and non-discrimination, literally born out of the ashes of a war that ended in the attempted destruction of an entire ethnic group, not to tolerate such incredible crimes from one of its most powerful members.

Antonio Guterres, like all those before him, may not so readily be judged on his accomplishments, but on his failures. He hasn’t yet failed completely on one of the worst crises unfolding in the world today, but he took significant steps in that direction while in China last week.

peter irwin

Peter Irwin

Peter Irwin is the Program Manager and Spokesperson at the World Uyghur Congress in Munich, Germany, where he works primarily as the UN representative for Geneva-based human rights mechanisms as well as with national governments and civil society. He is a MSc graduate of Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he conducted research on China's engagement at the UN and its relationship to the framing of the Uyghur issue internationally.