When Will the UN’s Chief Speak Up for the Uighurs?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There are a lot of people in the world who can plausibly claim ignorance of China’s foul campaign against its Muslim minority, but UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is not among them. Six months ago, the UN’s own committee on the elimination of racial discrimination released a devastating report on how China arbitrarily and systematically detains Uighurs in the western part of the country. Just last month, the UN high commissioner for human rights pressed the Chinese for access to the Uighur minority, only to be stonewalled again.

And yet Guterres is acting as if it’s business as usual with China. This week he will travel to Beijing to attend a forum to promote China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, an ambitious plan where China provides often-predatory loans to other countries to build ports, railways and other transportation infrastructure. 

In and of itself there is nothing right or wrong with this project. Wealthy countries loan poorer countries money all the time. Free trade is usually a good thing. What’s more, it’s part of the UN secretary general’s job to promote international cooperation.

But that’s only one part of the secretary general’s portfolio. He also should promote and exemplify the core values of the United Nations. And there is a risk that Guterres’s appearance at the Belt and Road forum will lend a powerful rogue nation some unearned legitimacy.  

Just listen to what Guterres said in September in Beijing at a forum on China-Africa cooperation, only a few weeks after the UN committee issued its report on China’s treatment of minorities. “China is today a global leader in climate solutions,” he said, promising that the UN will continue to support China’s development efforts in Africa. 

Why would Guterres say such a thing? Chinese engagement in Africa is, for the most part, notable for its partnerships with tyrants and thugs. Beijing partnered with Zimbabwe’s former dictator, Robert Mugabe, for years. And while it didn’t object to his ouster in 2017, it was happy to help prop up his regime while he purged his opposition and drove his country into ruinous debt and hyperinflation. In Sudan, China was a primary financier of the country’s north-south oil pipeline in the 1990s, a period marked by a vicious government campaign against local tribes along the pipeline’s path. 

It should not be surprising that China’s foreign policy is often amoral. Its domestic policy is amoral as well. Look no further than China’s war against the Uighurs. The UN report from August discussed re-education camps in Western China where Uighurs are “held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried.” There are credible reports that at least a million Uighurs have been sent to these camps. The Uighur language is banned in schools. Uighurs are targeted by sweeping electronic surveillance and effectively not allowed to travel abroad.  For those lucky enough to leave China, the report found credible reports that many “have allegedly been returned to the country against their will.”

When Guterres was asked about China’s treatment of the Uighur minority last September, his response was not encouraging. “About the Uighurs,” he said, “as in relation to any other cities in the world, we, naturally, hope that fully preserving and fully respecting the unity of the country that people are treated with full respect for their human rights.”

Such equivocation from the UN Secretary General is provocative. His hosts in Beijing must be delighted, as they proceed with their ethnic and religious cleansing in the western provinces, that he has accepted their invitation to celebrate their Belt and Road initiative.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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