Report

U.S. Once Jailed Uighurs, Now Defends Them at U.N.

China tries to silence the group and lashes out at a U.S. diplomat.

Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, in Tokyo on May 2, 2008. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)
Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, in Tokyo on May 2, 2008. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the United States and China found a common enemy in the Uighurs. Beijing saw the minority Muslims in the country’s western region of Xinjiang as separatists and cracked down on their independence movement. The United States labeled a group of them terrorists and locked them up at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay.

But U.S. diplomats found themselves championing the cause of the Uighurs at the United Nations this week, drawing an unusually undiplomatic rebuke from China that underscored Beijing’s growing assertiveness at the world body.

Kelley Currie, the U.S. representative to the U.N. for economic and social affairs, accused Beijing of preventing the exiled Uighur activist Dolkun Isa from entering U.N. headquarters in New York to speak at a forum on indigenous rights last month.

“This is a very sad and disappointing day,” she told foreign delegates at Monday’s session of the U.N. Committee on Nongovernmental Organizations. She said China was trying to silence a persecuted minority by suggesting Isa had ties to terrorism without providing any evidence.

In response, a senior Chinese diplomat called Currie excessively “emotional,” accused her of having a personal bias against China, and said she was turning a blind eye to terrorism.

“I suspect she has close contacts with those people,” says Yao Shaojun, a counselor at the Chinese mission to the United Nations. He cites Currie’s past as a critic of China’s human rights record in Xinjiang and elsewhere.

Chinese officials claim that a Germany-based organization led by Isa, the World Uyghur Congress, is a political wing of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, which the U.N. Security Council designated a terrorist organization in September 2002.

In a letter to a U.N. committee responsible for accrediting private advocacy groups, China claimed Isa had been “participating, inciting and funding separatism and terrorism for years.”

The United States and Germany maintain that there is no evidence of links between the two groups.

Beijing demanded that the U.N.-accredited organization that invited Isa to speak at the United Nations, the Society for Threatened Peoples, be stripped of its accreditation. The group, which is based in Germany, is scheduled to defend itself before the U.N. NGO committee Friday.

The United States sprung to Isa’s defense, saying China was seeking to retaliate against an irritating advocate who has shed light on political repression against the Uighurs.

“If Mr. Isa were in fact an actual terrorist … do you seriously think we would be inviting [him] into this country and giving him free rein to travel about?” Currie said, noting that the United States had granted Isa a 10-year multiple-entry visa. “Give me a break!”

China has intensified its campaign in the past year of pushing back against human rights advocacy at the U.N., even as it cracks down on the Uighurs.

Authorities in China have detained several hundred thousand Uighurs — up to 10 percent of the group — in a network of re-education camps, feeding widespread fear that “the slightest unintentional hint of dissatisfaction [with the government] can lead to imprisonment,” says Rian Thum, an associate professor of history at Loyola University in New Orleans and a historian of Muslim culture in China.

“Chinese authorities have criminalized much of Uighur culture,” he says. “The political climate is one of fear and uncertainty, in which virtually every Uighur has friends and family who have disappeared into the re-education camps, with no information on when, if ever, they will be released.”

Thum says he has never seen any evidence to link Isa or the World Uyghur Congress to any violent resistance to the Chinese government, much less to terrorism.

“In general, China treats all exiled Uighurs who disagree with its policies as terrorists,” he says.

Yao denies these allegations, saying China abolished its use of re-education labor camps long ago. He says the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities enjoy “the best protection of their human rights in history.”

Isa, a German citizen, was the subject of an Interpol red notice, issued at the request of China. Interpol lifted the notice in February, saying there was insufficient evidence he had committed a crime.

Isa had his first brush with Chinese officials at the United Nations in April 2017, when he attended an annual conference on indigenous rights. At the insistence of China, U.N. officials escorted Isa out of the U.N. headquarters building.

He returned to New York to attend the same conference last month, this time with assurances from U.N. officials that he would be allowed into the building. But again Isa was escorted out of the U.N. premises at the urging of China.

Currie personally intervened, accompanying Isa to U.N. headquarters. But the presence of a top U.S. official was insufficient to get Isa in the door.

It was not until top officials from the United States and Germany protested to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres that Isa was allowed into the U.N. compound to deliver his speech.

Some observers see irony in the fact that the United States is now defending the Uighurs. The country detained 22 members of the group at Guantánamo without charges for years, suggesting they were linked to Islamic terrorism.

“For years, the United States has been at the forefront of promoting an abusive counterterrorism architecture at the United Nations and has been allied with China on many of these efforts,” says Letta Tayler, an expert on counterterrorism with Human Rights Watch.

“Regrettably, now those chickens are coming home to roost,” she says.

The dispute comes at a delicate time, just as the United States is seeking Beijing’s cooperation in getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

U.S. President Donald Trump called off a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Thursday, citing Pyongyang’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” to the idea of giving up its nuclear weapons program.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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