1 million Uighurs in Chinese 'internment camps,' UN hears

Members of the Uighur community and others Muslims in China have been treated as "enemies of the state" and held in secret camps, a UN anti-discrimination body has said. Beijing has previously denied such camps exist.

On Friday, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination began a two-day annual review of human rights in China by voicing "deep concern" over the situation facing Muslim Uighurs in the country.

Speaking in Geneva, the committee's vice-chairwoman, Gay McDougall, said credible reports suggest that China's approach to combating religious extremism "has changed the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no rights zone."

She also claimed that as many as 2 million more Uighurs in China's Xinjiang autonomous region were being forced into "political camps for indoctrination."    

21 percent of all 2017 arrests in China made in the region

Sources cited in McDougall's remarks included Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an activist group, which last month reported that 21 percent of all 2017 arrests in China were made in Xinjiang.

The 50-member Chinese delegation in Geneva did not respond to McDougall's allegations. Earlier in the day, China's UN ambassador in Geneva, Yu Jianhua, said his country was taking steps to achieve equality and solidarity between all ethnic groups.

'Enemies of the state'

McDougall accused China of treating Uighurs and other Muslims like "enemies of the state" due to their ethnic and religious identity. Citing the "arbitrary and mass detention of almost 1 million Uighurs," committee member Fatima-Binta Victoire Dah asked the Chinese delegation: "What is the level of religious freedom now available to Uighurs in China, what legal protection exists for them to practice their religion?"  

China claims the Xinjiang region is facing threats from Islamists and extremists engaged in attacks and fomenting unrest between its Uighur minority and the Han majority. Critics say the Uighur are being kept under surveillance and targeted by the government, with thousands being sent to detention and indoctrination centers.

The Geneva committee will convene for its second day of meetings on Monday.

Politics

China's far western Xinjiang region ramps up security

Three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China's ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants.

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One Belt, One Road Initiative

An ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", which is President Xi Jinping's signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond.

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China fears disruption of "One Belt, One Road" summit

A man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China's worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year's diplomatic setpiece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence.

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Ethnic minority in China

A woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East.

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Communist Party vows to continue war on terror

Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its "war on terror" against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to "reject or refuse" state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation.

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CCTV cameras are being installed

Many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang's Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. "We have no privacy. They want to see what you're up to," says a shop owner in Kashgar.

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Ban on many typically Muslim customs

The most visible change is likely to come from the ban on "abnormal growing of beards," and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to "dissuade" people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police.

Politics

Security personnel keep watch

Authorities offer rewards for those who report "youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalized", as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses.

Politics

Economy or security?

China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing's goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang's economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas.

js/sms (AP, Reuters)

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