A U.S.-based NGO has sent a collection of letters to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, urging her to speak out against abuses in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) increasingly recognized as part of a policy of genocide against Uyghurs.
The “Letters of Hope For Uyghurs” contains 100 missives written by people from all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life, from activists to taxi drivers, engineers, medical doctors, and students. The letters were collected and sent to Bachelet in mid-February by Avaaz, a human rights group whose name means “voice” in several languages, although the contents were only made public last week.
Luis Morago, campaign director for Avaaz, urged Bachelet to “listen to the voices” in the letters of people who “believe in change when there are brave people out there fighting for it.”
“They are looking at you today as a courageous and visionary leader who has devoted her entire life to securing human rights and the rule of law—they trust that you are the leader the Uyghur people need to restore their freedom and dignity,” he wrote in his own letter to the commissioner.
Authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious” and “politically incorrect” views in a vast network of internment camps in the XUAR since 2017 and have jailed or detained hundreds of Uyghur academics and other influential members of the ethnic group in recent years.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets suggest that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.
‘It is happening again’
Morago call to Bachelet was joined by Nury Turkel, commissioner for the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent federal government body, who noted that the international community vowed never to allow another genocide to take place after Nazi Germany killed six million Jews during the Holocaust.
“But it is happening again today in China,” he warned. “By throwing millions of Uyghurs in concentration camps, the Chinese government brought back the sorts of unspeakable horrors and persecution of minorities that we thought ended with the 20th century.”
“I hope you find in these messages, the resolve and inspiration to carry out your mission. Not because it is easy, but because it could change the lives of millions. Because it is more urgent than ever. Because our shared humanity depends on it.”
The administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump officially designated the abuses in the XUAR part of a campaign of state-sponsored genocide and crimes against humanity in January and U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has embraced the label, working in tandem with global allies on measures to hold the Chinese government to account.
Among those measures is an ongoing call for unfettered access by independent monitors to investigate reports on the situation in the region. Last month, Jiang Duan, China’s delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Council, said Beijing was discussing a visit to the XUAR by Bachelet, but that “the aim of the visit is to provide exchanges and cooperation rather than … so-called investigation based on ‘guilty before proven.’”
The “invitation” followed a statement by Bachelet in which she said that the situation in the XUAR necessitated a thorough and independent assessment of the situation. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has previously told RFA that she would not accept unless given access to the camps on her own terms.
China in 2019 organized two visits to monitor internment camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and Thailand—during which officials dismissed claims about mistreatment and poor conditions in the facilities as “slanderous lies.”
During the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September last year, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan told the gathering that these trips and the China-friendly accounts they produced were “Potemkin tours in a failed attempt to prove” that the camps were humane training centers.
‘The situation is dire’
Meetali Jain, legal director for Avaaz, said that the leadership of the U.N. has largely stayed silent on China’s policies in the XUAR, despite repeated requests from various nations and organizations to take action and urged Bachelet to break that silence.
“I think many people have been trying for some time to see changes at the U.N—to actually see U.N. leadership speak out and take decisive action on this issue and they haven’t,” Jain said.
“And so, we thought, maybe rather than going to the U.N. and naming and shaming and criticizing, maybe we should change our tactics,” she added on the decision to proceed with the letter writing campaign.
Sophie Richardson, China director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, spoke highly of the volume of letters, commenting that the book might be even more effective than some other forms of human rights advocacy in at least some settings.
“For over a year now, we’ve actively been trying to support basically the Uyghur community in the fight for rights and liberty and justice,” she said.
“This book of ours makes very clear what’s at stake if the world fails Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims … Bodies like the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council must act to protect these people and these communities … The situation is dire, and this is exactly what those institutions are meant to do.”
Avaaz has yet to receive a response to the letters from the OHCHR.
Reported by Nuriman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.