A Missed Opportunity to Protect Muslims in China

Protest on behalf of Uyghurs outside the White House (Elvert Barnes via Flickr)

by Farida Deif

News of a major new crackdown on Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, including locking up as many as a million people without charge in “political re-education” camps, has made major headlines around the world in recent weeks.

So when the foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) met in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, it seemed unfathomable that they would ignore the plight of fellow Muslims.

The Chinese government, after all, has effectively outlawed the practice of Islam in this predominantly Muslim part of the country. And the organization, despite an overall weak record on human rights, has in the past expressed concern about the situation in Xinjiang. Surely the OIC, the collective voice of Muslim governments around the world, would bring its full weight to bear to condemn these abuses.

But, instead, the OIC praised China.

In a resolution focused on safeguarding the rights of Muslims living in non-Muslim countries, the OIC commended China’s efforts “in providing care to its Muslim citizens” and looked “forward to further cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China.” The resolution did not include a word of criticism or condemnation for Beijing.

China’s
“Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism” is used by authorities as a thinly veiled cover for its numerous and systematic rights violations in Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Beijing last month and his expressed admiration for China’s “anti-terrorism and de-extremism” efforts may have set the groundwork for the OIC’s shameful resolution.

How could the OIC suddenly issue such a disgraceful resolution? Did countries such as Turkey, which only last month issued a searing statement on abuses against Uighurs, acquiesce? Did Saudi Arabia tip the scale? Did China, as reported to us, dispatch a delegation of two dozen diplomats to the OIC meeting to lobby against any criticism? As the OIC is largely opaque about its deliberations, we may never know. But the result speaks for itself.

Just like that, the OIC applauded a country that has torn down mosques, removed Muslim crescents from burial sites, and confiscated prayer mats and Qurans. The OIC essentially condoned the mass surveillance, forced political indoctrination, arbitrary detention and collective punishment of a Muslim minority population of 13 million people.

The OIC charter sets out as one of its key objectives to: “safeguard the rights, dignity and religious and cultural identity of Muslim communities and minorities in non-Member States”. But apparently to maintain and enhance its diplomatic and trade relations with China, the OIC abandoned its founding principles and undermined its core mission. By applauding China, the OIC sent a dangerous message to governments around the world. By adopting this resolution, the OIC betrayed not only Uighurs in China, but Muslim minorities globally.

For China, it seems that any expression of Muslim identity is synonymous with extremism. The Xinjiang authorities have made foreign ties by its residents to 22 Muslim-majority countries a punishable offense. Both Saudi Arabia, the home of the OIC secretariat, and the United Arab Emirates, the host of the recent OIC foreign ministers’ meeting, are included on this “sensitive” list.  One would assume that OIC members would take offense. Instead, the OIC ignored this direct affront while heaping praise on China.

To deflect global criticism over its systemic abuses against Uighurs, China carefully restricts access to Xinjiang and only allows foreign visitors under highly controlled, state-managed diplomatic visits. OIC delegates went on one such visit, but apparently ignored the signs of widespread repression and refrained from questioning the propaganda their handlers fed them.

But meaningful access to Xinjiang requires independent experts who can see what Beijing does not want them to see. Given the magnitude of abuses, repeated whitewashing by China, and abandonment of the Uighurs by the OIC, other governments should join forces at the current session of the United Nations Human Rights Council to establish an independent international fact-finding mission to Xinjiang.

The Chinese government loathes coordinated action, but that is the most powerful tool in the international community’s arsenal to increase the political cost of China’s actions. China’s repressive Xinjiang campaign was a key test of whether the OIC would take strong and decisive steps to put pressure on an increasingly powerful China to end its systemic abuses. It failed miserably.

Other countries need to urgently step in to support Uighurs and fill this glaring gap.

Farida Deif is the Canada director of Human Rights Watch. Reprinted, with permission, from The New Arab.

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  1. This may be correct, but honestly, for US and Canadian citizens to decide on the rights of Muslims in china and the reaction of the OIC is overdoing the R2P with very little real understanding.

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