China must allow international probe over repression of Uighur minority

The international community is using sanctions to heighten pressure on China over its repression of the Uighur minority. China has a responsibility to allow an independent investigation and clarify the actual situation, which has been opaque.

The European Union has decided to sanction Chinese officials on the grounds that the detention, forced labor and other abuses of Uighurs are serious human rights violations. The sanctions against China are the first to be implemented by the EU since those imposed by its predecessor organization in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

It can be said that Europe, which has prioritized economic concerns when it comes to relations with China, has begun reconsidering the relationship.

The EU’s principle of unanimity had previously been a barrier to implementing sanctions. But it has become easier for the EU to reach an agreement since it established a new system late last year in which it focuses sanctions on human rights violations and imposes them on individuals and organizations rather than governments. It appears the EU has now been able to demonstrate its core philosophy of emphasizing human rights.

The United States, Britain and Canada have also announced sanctions against China. This indicates that coordinated efforts between the United States and other Western countries have also progressed on human rights issues since U.S. President Joe Biden took office.

The Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim, number 12.8 million living in the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region in western China. Beijing has been wary of separatist movements and has pushed for assimilation measures such as Chinese language education and propaganda extolling the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.

Based on Chinese government documents, satellite photographs and eyewitness testimony, Western countries have claimed that 1 million Uighurs have been detained in so-called correctional facilities, where torture, ideological re-education, forced labor and sterilizations are rampant. This situation cannot be left unaddressed.

China has refuted the claims, saying they are “fabrications based on prejudice.” If China insists that the accusations are groundless, it should allow the United Nations and experts to conduct the investigation that Western countries have called for. Unless the actual situation is made public, the international community’s concerns are unlikely to be dispelled.

China’s argument that criticism from Western countries constitutes interference in domestic affairs is also off the mark. The U.N. Charter, which China has prioritized, advocates respect for basic human rights. It is natural for issues concerning universal values, such as human rights and freedom, to attract international attention.

Unlike Western countries, Japan has been cautious about imposing sanctions against China. This is because Japan’s own information to confirm Beijing’s suppression is very limited, and Japan also has yet to establish a legal system that allows for imposing sanctions over human rights violations.

However, sitting on the sidelines may give the false impression that Japan disregards human rights. Japan must not repeat the same mistake as when the conciliatory stance it took after the Tiananmen Square incident failed to bring change in China.

The U.N. Human Rights Council has been dysfunctional, with the majority of its member states supporting China. Nevertheless, Japan, which is a member of the council, should take concrete action to improve the situation, such as calling for the dispatch of an investigative team to China.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 29, 2021.