Xinjiang Visit by U.N. Counterterrorism Official Provokes Outcry

Rights activists say upcoming trip by U.N. diplomat could reinforce Beijing’s line that Uighur activists are terrorists.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ethnic Uighurs take part in a protest march calling on the European Union to do more on China's crackdown against Uighurs, in Brussels on April 27, 2018.
Ethnic Uighurs take part in a protest march calling on the European Union to do more on China's crackdown against Uighurs, in Brussels on April 27, 2018. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

A planned visit to China’s Xinjiang province this week by a Russian national who serves as the United Nations’ top counterterrorism official has infuriated human rights advocates and some Western governments, who fear Beijing will use the trip as propaganda.

The visit by Vladimir Ivanovich Voronkov marks the first high-level visit by a U.N. official to the predominantly Muslim territory since Beijing began forcing an estimated million local members of the Uighur minority into detention camps, according to several U.N.-based diplomats. Voronkov, the undersecretary general for the U.N. Office of Counter-terrorism, will be accompanied by a Chinese public security minister, and critics say the trip will serve to reinforce China’s claim that its actions against the Uighur population in Xinjiang are the result of terrorist threats, not a brutal government crackdown on a minority population.

“It’s handing China a propaganda victory,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch. It “risks confirming China’s false narrative that this is a counterterrorism issue, not a question of massive human rights abuses.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, confirmed that Voronkov is on an official trip to China, the only permanent member of the council whose country he had yet to visit. But he declined to say whether he would visit Xinjiang.

“The UN Office of Counter-Terrorism is mandated by the General Assembly and provides support to Member States and the UN System,” Dujarric said. The office, he added, has a mandate to “ensure respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism.”

The trip, critics say, threatens to overshadow plans by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, to travel to Xinjiang to draw attention to conditions in China’s camps, which it labels as re-education camps. China’s U.N. envoy, Chen Xu, told reporters at a news conference in Geneva that China was eager to host Bachelet in Xinjiang but that they have not settled on a date for the visit. Bachelet would be the first high commissioner for human rights to visit China since 2005, when Louise Arbour paid an official visit.

“We hope to see the high commissioner pay a visit to China, including a trip to Xinjiang, to see by herself,” the Chinese diplomat said of Bachelet’s proposed trip, according to Reuters. “The invitation to the high commissioner is always there. We hope to define a time which is convenient to both sides.”

Chen denied China had established a vast network of detention camps, saying the facilities were merely “vocational training centers [to] help young people, especially young people, to get skills, to be well equipped for their reintegration into society.”

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the previous high commissioner for human rights, voiced concern that a simple government-controlled tour of Xinjiang may offer little insight into the true conditions in the camp, particularly if U.N. officials don’t have the ability to question detainees.

“Access without proper investigation (free and unfettered) into what is happening in the camps is quite useless, raises dramatically the possibility of staging and whitewash,” he told Foreign Policy in an email.

Human rights watchdogs say China has often used security measures as a smokescreen to carry out crackdowns. “It’s very much on par with the Chinese government’s attempts to frame this as a counterterrorism operation,” said Francisco Bencosme, the Asia Pacific advocacy manager at Amnesty International, a human rights advocacy organization. “The Chinese have often used national security laws or justifications to commit human rights violations.”

A U.S. State Department spokesperson could not confirm the status of Voronkov’s trip but criticized such officially sanctioned visits as a public relations win for China. “We strongly urge the international community to carefully consider invitations from Beijing to visit Xinjiang,” the spokesperson said. “Highly choreographed and chaperoned government-led tours in Xinjiang have proven only to propagate falsehoods and obfuscate the realities of China’s ongoing human rights abuses.”

Guterres has faced criticism from human rights advocates for failing to speak out publicly on abuses of the Uighurs. The United States, Britain, Germany, Turkey, and other nations urged the secretary-general to raise concerns about the camps with China during a visit to Beijing in late April for a conference on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, according to the New York Times. During his speech, Guterres referred to China as a “pillar of international cooperation and multilateralism,” but he made no mention of the plight of the Uighurs.

However, Dujarric, Guterres’s spokesman, subsequently told reporters that the U.N. chief had raised the matter directly with Chinese authorities, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi. “The Secretary‑General’s position on this has always been the same in private as it is in public,” Dujarric said. “Human rights must be fully respected in the fight against terrorism and in the prevention of violent extremism.”

This story has been updated.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer