EU Seen Turning Tough Rhetoric Into Action on Abuses Against Muslim Uyghurs in China

Members of the European Parliament prepare to vote on a resolution condemning the large-scale incarceration of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, at the parliament building in Strasbourg, eastern France, Dec. 19, 2019.(Video screenshot courtesy of the European Parliament)

Rights groups rejoiced when the European Parliament passed a resolution in December strongly condemning the large-scale incarceration of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China, laying out a blueprint for action against Beijing should it not stop its harsh treatment of the Muslim minority group.

The resolution gives the EU a mandate to take concrete measures by allowing the adoption of targeted sanctions and asset freezes against Chinese officials responsible for the repression and mass detentions in Xinjiang where more than 10 million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims live.

The resolution notes the rapid deterioration of the situation in Xinjiang during the last few years with the mass internment of up to 2 million people, intrusive digital surveillance, political indoctrination, and forced cultural assimilation. It calls on the Chinese government to immediately shut down the detention centers, unconditionally release detainees, and give independent journalists and international observers unfettered access to the region.

At the time the resolution was passed, the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) called it “a turning point in the EU’s attitude and position on the crisis in East Turkestan,” the name by which many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang.

“While the EU has been among the loudest voices calling for the camps to be closed, it had yet to take strong and concrete action to realize this goal,” the WUC said in a statement.

Though it could take months before the EU as a whole moves to implement specific measures against China, rights groups say they have high expectations that something will occur soon.

“It’s just one step in the larger process of getting the European Union to take further action,” said Ryan Barry, WUC’s project coordinator and researcher. “It gives the EU a mandate to take some very concrete measures, including suggestions to take sanctions, which is something we’ve been calling for for a long time.”

The December 2019 resolution is the third such measure to be passed by EU lawmakers in the last 18 months to address the Uyghur crisis and demonstrate the body’s resolve to take substantial action to stop China from violating human rights in Xinjiang.

Going beyond the other two measures, the new resolution calls on EU companies to monitor their involvement in the Uyghur region to ensure they are not complicit in or responsible for crimes against humanity taking place there, Barry said.

“Each one has gotten progressively more concrete and more specific in what they are trying to address, so we think this is a very important part in the overall scheme to try to address this issue, but what matters now is to implement the measures in this resolution,” Barry said.

A sense of urgency

Others indicate an urgency for concrete action because they say China may not take the December resolution or other measures seriously. So far, the situation in Xinjiang, where authorities are believed to have held 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since April 2017, hasn’t changed.

“The resolutions may be ignored, but the EU has to be ready to follow up and impose necessary actions/measures in accordance with international law,” Bahtiyar Omer, chairman of the Norwegian Uyghur Committee, wrote in an email to RFA. “We cannot stop fighting for basic and universal values just because China might ignore it.”

Norway is not a member of the European Union, but rather a member of the European Economic Area that allows for the extension of the EU’s single market to non-EU member states.

Gheyur Qurban, WUC’s Berlin-based youth committee director, told RFA in 2019 that China believes it can afford to ignore accountability on the Uyghur crisis because of its economic superpower status.

“Regardless of this human crisis there, what governments can do is not far enough,” he said. “There is emphasis and attention, but there is only a war of words because China is now a superpower, so it just doesn’t care about these human rights [issues].”

Rights groups say that pressure must be sustained on bodies like the EU to keep the Uyghur crisis out in front so that lawmakers and others will decide to implement concrete measures against China sooner rather than later, but challenges remain.

Ralph Bunche, general-secretary of the Brussels-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), notes that unlike the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, a legally binding measure passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December 2019, the EU Parliament’s latest resolution is a nonbinding statement that is asking EU institutions to act.

“So, you’re not looking at something that will immediately jump into action, but what you can really ask for is the European Union as a whole to take this resolution and use it to create a policy movement to ensure that some of the things mentioned in the resolution actually happen.” he said.

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which still must clear the U.S. Senate, requires President Donald Trump to condemn Chinese abuses in Xinjiang and call for the closure of mass detention facilities.

The passage of the act by the House was followed by calls from U.S. lawmakers for Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, the architect of the internment policy, and other Chinese officials, and for efforts to prevent U.S. companies from buying Chinese products made with forced labor in the Xinjiang camps.

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act was crafted initially to deal with alleged human rights abuses and corruption in Russia, freezing the US. assets of rights violators and banning them from entering the country.

Other rights activists say that economic factors in recent years have complicated EU action on China and the Uyghur crisis, as member states became more involved in infrastructure projects under China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

“We observe that often economic interests have overcome the universal and democratic values we are talking about so often, [but] the ongoing crisis in East Turkestan unfortunately reached a point where it was not possible to ignore any more,” Bahtiyar Omer said.

Efforts paying off

Nevertheless, efforts by rights groups and individuals within the EU for lawmakers to acknowledge and address the Uyghur crisis as part of the bloc’s greater engagement with China have gained traction.

“At the beginning, nobody really wanted to meet with us, but then they became keener and keener to do so,” said Lucia Parrucci, the UNPO’s advocacy and training coordinator.

In October 2017, some EU lawmakers formed a Uyghur Friendship Group, an informal network of legislators from different political groups and delegates from EU member states who meet regularly to discuss the challenges the Uyghur community faces, including the mass detentions in Xinjiang.

“Attention was high because these people were committed to the issue and talking about it,” Parrucci said.

The parliamentary group also drew attention to the plight of Uyghur economics professor Ilham Tohti, who is serving a life sentence in prison in China on “separatism” charges.

A day before the passage of the EU’s latest resolution on the Uyghur crisis, Tohti was awarded the Sakharov Prize for his efforts to foster understanding between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese and to highlight the human rights conditions of the Uyghurs.

During a public hearing in Strasbourg on authoritarianism and the shrinking space for freedom of expression and human rights defenders on Tuesday, Yang Jianli, founder and president of Initiatives for China/Citizen Power, discussed what he called the “totalitarian” policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping who is “intent on controlling every aspect of people’s lives” through extensive surveillance systems.

“No doubt, China has become a high-tech digital surveillance superpower since Xi took power, and now its surveillance long arm is reaching out to the world,” he said. “The overriding grand goal of China’s rejuvenation and the China dream allows the Party state to continue denying the rights of China’s people as well as people in Hong Kong and to continue to oppress the Tibetans and Uyghur Muslim minorities.”

The EU has also been one of the most vocal actors on the Uyghur crisis during the last eight or nine Human Rights Council sessions at the United Nations and during the annual EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, Barry said.

“The EU delegation has consistently raised this issue whereas many other states have not for the last three EU-China Human Rights Dialogues — the camps, Uyghur issues, and Uyghur rights issues in particular have been priorities,” he said. “What’s been missing is concrete action, which is what this resolution really calls for.”

“This most recent resolution calls for precisely this — targeted sanctions, passing Magnitsky-style legislation that the EU can use to impose these assets freezes, visa bans, and targeted measures,” Barry said. “That is very necessary from the EU. That’s the next big step in the process.”

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