By Omer Kanat, Director, Uyghur Human Rights Project

In April 2019, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), addressed Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and other world leaders at the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. In his speech, Mr. Guterres praised Xi’s signature economic policy as “a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the creation of a more equitable, prosperous world for all.”

These words came as a complete shock to Uyghurs whose homeland has been transformed into an “open-air prison” as China talks up the region as a hub for the non-consultative Belt and Road Initiative. Asked whether Mr. Guterres raised the ongoing mass internment of one and half, possibly three, million Uyghurs, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric replied the Secretary-General had “discussed all relevant issues with Chinese authorities.”

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.

This is clearly an insufficient response to the largest internment of an ethnoreligious minority since World War Two and constitutes an abrogation of Mr. Guterres’ responsibilities to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all “without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” as outlined in the UN founding charter.

Friday is the UN’s International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. According to the UN, we mark such days “to educate the general public on issues of concern.” However, the UN leadership is in sore need of an education on enforced disappearances in the Uyghur region. Such disappearances mark a serious violation of international human rights standards and in the words of the UN have “frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society.”

In the past ten years, the Chinese government has become increasingly emboldened in conducting enforced disappearances of Uyghurs. An October 2009 Human Rights Watch report documented large-scale sweep operations conducted by security forces in two predominantly Uyghur areas of Urumchi following unrest in the city that year. Human Rights Watch recorded the forcible disappearance of 43 Uyghur men, which Brad Adams, the organization’s Asia director, called the “tip of the iceberg.”

YouTube video

Patigul Ghulam, the mother of one of the Uyghurs disappeared in 2009, has paid a price for merely seeking information on her son Imammemet Eli. She told Radio Free Asia reporters, “I don’t know where my son is, whether he is alive or dead.” Patigul petitioned the government and police to disclose the whereabouts of Imammemet and confronted Chinese officials in March 2011. In September 2012, she was placed under house arrest, and in March 2016, she was charged with leaking state secrets for discussing her son’s case with media overseas.

However, with the rapid and expansive construction of internment camps for Uyghurs and other Turkic people, the Chinese government has systemized forcible disappearances. This gulag archipelago with Chinese characteristics has taken one and a half million, perhaps up to three million, people into detention. These are numbers that bear repeating. A Uyghur can end up in a camp for the simplest of reasons; perhaps they have a relative overseas, or are a public intellectual, or have expressed their religious belief.

Due to the unprecedented scale of disappearances, Uyghurs in the diaspora are speaking out. One woman told Uyghur Human Rights Project researchers, “I am ready to speak up on behalf of my daughter. Whoever asks, wherever I am required to go, I’ll speak up about my daughter’s disappearance.”

António Guterres
António Guterres. File Photo: Flickr/United States Mission Geneva.

Mr. Guterres would only have to ask a Uyghur living in Adelaide, Washington, DC, or Europe how long it has been since they have heard from a relative back home. He could also try logging onto Twitter. Hundreds of Uyghurs have used the hashtag #MeTooUyghur to highlight the disappearance of their loved ones. Harri Uyghur, a Uyghur living in Finland, said he started the movement to apply pressure on the Chinese authorities to prove Uyghurs who had been detained were still living. If neither speaking to Uyghurs, nor browsing Twitter is possible, Uyghurs from around the world have been testifying online about specific missing individuals at the Xinjiang Victims Database.

These brave Uyghurs are speaking out at great risk. It is time the UN leadership revise its statement that the Belt and Road brings “a meaningful opportunity to contribute to the creation of a more equitable, prosperous world for all.” On the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances 2019, Uyghurs call on the United Nations and Secretary-General António Guterres to use their formidable political and moral platform to condemn the enforced disappearances of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples. We count on the UN to protect the vulnerable. It is time to step up.

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Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.