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COP26 Is Silent on Human Rights in China

Environmental activists are afraid of angering Beijing.

By , an Asia-focused freelance journalist.
Protesters demonstrate outside the venue of the U.N. climate change conference.
Protesters from the climate change group Extinction Rebellion demonstrate outside the venue of the U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 8. Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

To many Uyghurs and Tibetans in exile, a July letter sent by several climate, environmental, and anti-war organizations to the Biden administration confirmed their worst suspicions—that the climate and environmental movement did not care about them or their causes.

“That made us upset,” said Omer Kanat, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “We felt they were sacrificing Uyghurs to convince China to come to the table for climate change.”

The letter—in which CODEPINK, an organization pushing genocide-denying content, joined environmental organizations Friends of the Earth, the Union of Concerned Scientists, 350 Action, Earthworks, and the Sunrise Movement—argued U.S. President Joe Biden’s confrontational approach would harm climate change action. It made no mention of the reason for some of that confrontation—the situation in Xinjiang, Tibet, or Hong Kong—implicitly making the argument that silence on human rights was an acceptable cost for climate action.

To many Uyghurs and Tibetans in exile, a July letter sent by several climate, environmental, and anti-war organizations to the Biden administration confirmed their worst suspicions—that the climate and environmental movement did not care about them or their causes.

“That made us upset,” said Omer Kanat, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “We felt they were sacrificing Uyghurs to convince China to come to the table for climate change.”

The letter—in which CODEPINK, an organization pushing genocide-denying content, joined environmental organizations Friends of the Earth, the Union of Concerned Scientists, 350 Action, Earthworks, and the Sunrise Movement—argued U.S. President Joe Biden’s confrontational approach would harm climate change action. It made no mention of the reason for some of that confrontation—the situation in Xinjiang, Tibet, or Hong Kong—implicitly making the argument that silence on human rights was an acceptable cost for climate action.

“I do believe that many of those groups signed because they really were kind of ignorant of the issue,” said Pema Doma, campaigns director for Students for a Free Tibet. “But the organizations that are leading it are definitely aware and making an active decision to put the voices of white climate activists above the voices of actual Tibetan and Uyghur front-line, impacted communities.”

This isn’t just a fringe issue. There’s been a continuing argument within the Biden administration about how to handle China—one in which U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has been accused of leading the argument that silence on human rights is needed to get climate cooperation. Kerry denies that claim—but at the U.N. climate change summit (known as COP26) now taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, it seems those arguing in favor of silence won. As more than 100 world leaders—though notably not the head of state of the world’s largest greenhouse gas-emitting country—gathered along with representatives from major climate and environmental groups, there wasn’t one word about the Xinjiang camps, the fact that 53 civil society groups have disbanded due to government pressure in Hong Kong, or the fact that Tibet remains closed off from the world.

That’s a stark contrast from the way major global environmental organizations are increasingly taking a human rights approach in other countries. Greenpeace supports labor and Indigenous rights around the world while the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has released statements in support of Black Lives Matter. Friends of the Earth International has released several statements in support of Palestinian rights, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (USC) even called on the United States to treat Haitian refugees better. It’s part of a global shift, in which nongovernmental organizations that traditionally focused on protecting the environment have increasingly embraced environmental justice and well-documented interconnections between human rights abuses and environmental degradation.

Yet, there’s no mention of human rights abuses in Tibet, Xinjiang, or Hong Kong by the NRDC, Greenpeace, or Friends of the Earth’s websites or social media. The NRDC, 350 Action, and Friends of the Earth International declined to speak with Foreign Policy about their positions on human rights issues in China, while Sunrise Movement didn’t respond to repeated attempts to reach them. Other groups were only willing to speak off the record. The one exception was the Union of Concerned Scientists, which stated they were unaware of the other signatories until the letter was released and stand behind their belief in using peaceful and diplomatic means to address global challenges.

“Our call for diplomacy should not be conflated with enabling or condoning bad actions by the Chinese government,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director of UCS’s climate and energy program, adding they “condemn human rights violations anywhere in the world, including in China.”

For Pema Doma, this is not enough. She points out that UCS could have easily found videos denying the Uyghur genocide linked to the letter’s leading signatories after it was released. She hopes in the future, UCS and other climate groups would do more due diligence and reach out to front-line communities, including Tibetans and Uyghurs, before “making such dramatic statements that have real-life consequences on human rights.”

Earlier this year, Pema Doma recalls trying to engage with another group that signed the July letter. They had a meeting where they expressed their concerns about the situation in Tibet and offered to educate members about what was happening. But in the end, they were told that because conservatives were regularly calling out China (for reasons more political than for genuine human rights concerns), they didn’t want to.

“What does it matter what other people are talking about? If Tibetans themselves are reaching out to you and taking the emotional labor to share about the issue, isn’t it at least worth it to listen?” Pema Doma asked. But that was the end of the discussion. “They ghosted me, and they never spoke to me again.”

In fact, only one Western environmental group released public statements on human rights in China and was willing to speak on the record: the California-based Breakthrough Institute (BTI). In a blog post responding to the July letter, BTI called out the hypocrisy in speaking up for Indigenous people elsewhere but not Uyghur forced laborers in solar supply chains and called on climate groups to “consult more with Asian and international human rights or pro-democracy movements” when determining their positions on China.

“We didn’t want to self-censor, so we made a decision that we’re not that interested in having access to Chinese officials or academics or trying to develop a Chinese audience,” said Seaver Wang, BTI’s senior climate and energy analyst and author of that blog post. “Breakthrough has traditionally been outspoken and willing to make points that we believe need to be made.”

Of course, BTI has just 19 staff members, all in the United States, whereas several environmental NGOs—including Greenpeace, the World Resources Institute (WRI), the NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund, and others—have offices around the world, including in China. They mostly opened back in the 2000s and early 2010s, when the space for civil society and press was more open, assuming they were mostly silent on issues like the 3 Ts: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. But they still have staff there, both foreign and Chinese, potentially at risk.

“For many years, [environmental NGOs] were able to say, ‘oh, if I don’t speak about Tibet, I can still speak about these other issues, and that way, China will be happy and they’ll commit to a couple of extra points that we want,’” Pema Doma said.

But these small compromises added up over time, turning from a trickle to a wave, especially after 2013, when Xi Jinping came to power. Although the situation was never good for human rights under Chinese Communist Party rule, it has gotten much, much worse.

“Broadly speaking, it was the right decision for these nonprofits to open in China, but with Xi’s turn towards repression and Beijing’s growing assertiveness, it’s become more and more difficult for [organizations] to maintain presences in China and [keep] their values intact,” said Isaac Stone Fish, founder of the firm Strategy Risks and author of a Washington Post opinion criticizing the July letter. “People often forget the costs of maintaining that access.”

With Amnesty International announcing the closure of its Hong Kong office at the end of October—unlike environmental groups, it was never able to operate in the mainland—perhaps it’s time for climate groups to reconsider their operations with the Chinese government. For Kanat, the answer is obvious.

“They shouldn’t have business as usual with China,” Kanat said. “Climate organizations that are saying that they respect human rights, they close their eyes as if they don’t see anything and have [a] normal relationship with a country that is committing genocide.”

This brings up a larger question, also not asked at the U.N. climate change summit. What kind of world do we want? Climate change is a major global issue, one that will affect low-income communities and developing countries disproportionately. That includes Tibetans and Uyghurs, whose homelands are located in sensitive regions at high risk of climate impacts. Justice is central to a cleaner future. But what does that mean in a world where authoritarianism and nationalism are rising?

“If China does make positive decisions for the climate, that does positively benefit humanity. But if we have genocides that we leave unspoken, what are we even fighting to protect?” Pema Doma asked.

There’s another option, one rooted in the transition the environmental movement has made over the past decade: understanding that people are as important as the planet not only because they’re impacted by climate change but because they are part of the solution. If so, why are we putting so much effort into hoping un-elected, unaccountable authoritarian leaders committing wide-scale human rights atrocities will do the right thing on climate?

“There’s a risk that all the pageantry at [COP26] legitimizes China’s system of government,” Wang said. “Everyone pretends that China is just another normal world government. … It’s very important to recognize that it is a very abnormal system.”

The same organizations that claim they “want people, especially the most vulnerable, protected [and] their human rights safeguarded” and are fighting to “protect human rights defenders, defenders of territories and their communities,” should be the ones highlighting the plights of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and others in China at COP26. Perhaps they could even sign a letter?

Instead, no one is bringing up human rights in the halls where the future of global climate is being debated—not environmental groups and not governments. The returns are suspect as well. Despite these organizations’ best attempts, China sent a small delegation, opted out of setting up a pavilion, and has been notably absent from statements around methane emissions and deforestation.

A widely praised pledge to end financing of overseas coal power announced by Xi in September is still lacking details and may have loopholes, as it didn’t stop a state-owned enterprise from joining a consortium to invest in a coal-to-methanol project in Indonesia earlier last month. It also has no effect on domestic coal plants, of which China initiated five times more capacity than the rest of the world combined in 2020.

What exactly have Greenpeace, WRI, NRDC, and others gained from engaging Xi’s China and opting to stay silent on Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong? The world might not even get a good climate deal from China out of it.

Nithin Coca is an Asia-focused freelance journalist covering the environment, human rights, and politics across the region.

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