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China: Uighur Muslims

Volume 794: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to raise (1) with the government of China, and (2) in international fora, the treatment and conditions of Uighur people held in “re-education” camps in China.

My Lords, we have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, including the use of political re-education camps and widespread surveillance and restrictions, which are targeted particularly at Uighur Muslims. Indeed, our diplomats recently visited Xinjiang. We highlighted our serious concerns at the September UN Human Rights Council, during China’s universal periodic review in November and in my subsequent public statement. My right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific also raised the issue with their Chinese counterparts.

My Lords, having met Uighurs in western China, I thank the Minister for that very robust reply. Reports suggest that up to 1 million Uighurs have been incarcerated without trial in a network of sinister re-education camps: these are bristling with barbed wire and watchtowers, with torture and brainwashing that demands renouncing God and embracing Communism. People are forced to change family names, give DNA samples and eat and drink forbidden things. Is this not a return to the methods of the Cultural Revolution, when thought crime regularly led to imprisonment and worse? What are the Government doing to encourage Muslim and other heads of state to speak out, recognising that such appalling treatment of a Muslim minority will fuel resentment and radicalisation right across the globe? What are they doing to persuade Beijing of the benefits of Article 18 and pluralism, and show that this appalling treatment of the Uighur people is the last way to create integration, loyalty and harmony?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising this issue. When we talk of religious persecution and the rights of different minority communities around the world, the plight of the Uighur Muslim is often forgotten. I have certainly been aware of this. The noble Lord will know that we raised this issue in a deliberate, focused way during the universal periodic review with the specific reference to the plight of the Uighur Muslims. To answer his question directly, that has resulted in strong support at an international level, not just among Muslim leaders, but in other states, ensuring that we raise the bar on raising this issue consistently with the Chinese authorities. Indeed, as I said earlier, our diplomats have recently returned from the region. The reports they provided are quite challenging and even quite horrific in certain respects, with people being asked to remove any sign that they are of a particular faith.

My Lords, the United Nations estimates that there are over 1 million people—mostly Uighur Muslims, including Kazakhs and others—in these resettlement camps. We are a member of the UN Human Rights Council; China has been a member for six years and this expires in October of next year. It is good that we have raised this issue, but what support have we received from others on the Human Rights Council, and what response has there been from China?

My Lords, it would be fair to say that at this stage the response from China on the concerns raised has been quite limited. However, this is an issue that has come to the fore and has now been raised at an international level, where perhaps it had not previously got the focus it deserves. Let me assure the noble Lord and your Lordships’ House that this remains a key priority on our human rights agenda. Specifically, we have been talking to partners at the Security Council, we raised this directly and bilaterally with the Chinese authorities and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised this in his direct talks with the Foreign Minister of China.

I thank the noble Lord for his very strong response, but does he recognise that some of the actions we have taken on this matter have been taken in conjunction with the EU External Action Service? Of course, we also worked together with France and Germany on the case of Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia. How does he think we will be able to maximise our impact on human rights with a superpower such as China if we leave the EU?

My Lords, our stance on human rights predates our membership of the European Union. The noble Baroness is right to say that we have worked very closely with our European partners. In bilateral discussions with EU partners and beyond, the importance of human rights and the impact of raising those issues when we stand together are clear. Unity of action on these issues is clear, and it is my view that after we leave the European Union, we will continue to work very closely with our European partners on human rights issues and the benefits we have seen will continue.

I appreciate that the Government have been raising this issue with the Chinese authorities, but have they raised it with the US in order to get joint action to persuade China that human rights are a matter of international concern and not something that can simply be left to individual countries to deal with on their own?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an important point, but let me assure him that through our membership of the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, we raise these issues with like-minded partners but also with countries from the Islamic world—to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred—to ensure that a consistent message is delivered. China is an important partner of the United Kingdom on a range of different issues, but that should not preclude our raising human rights issues clearly and unequivocally.

My noble friend’s replies have been encouraging, but I understand that the situation is even worse at present. It is now reported that the Chinese authorities are removing the children from these camps, which are full of 1 million of their nationals, and taking them away to be re-educated separately. That is totally heartless and should be a central part of his inquiry.

My Lords, my noble friend raises a disturbing turn of events, which has been much reported. Any parent of any child can relate to the issue he has raised. The issue of the Uighur Muslims in particular, but also that of all the different religious minority communities in China, is a concern. Let me assure him and your Lordships’ House that in my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, I will raise it consistently, both bilaterally and in all international fora.

My Lords, the Minister will doubtless know that there are factories alongside these concentration camps that are paying very low wages. Will the Government therefore ensure that their products do not enter supply chains into this country?

My Lords, I have been made aware of this and we are certainly reviewing the reports we have received. As I said, earlier this month senior diplomats from our mission in Beijing visited the region, and we are looking at their observations and recommendations very closely.