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28 January 2019updated 27 Jul 2021 4:05am

Alistair Carmichael: It’s time for the government to speak out against China’s repression of the Uyghurs

The clamp-down on the predominantly Muslim Uyghur group has seen the imprisonment of up to two million people. 

By Alistair Carmichael

This Tuesday I will lead a parliamentary debate on human rights in the Chinese Province of Xinjiang. The clamp-down on the predominantly Muslim Uyghur group has seen the imprisonment of up to two million people. This incarceration, in what the Chinese government refers to as “re-education camps”, has been described as entailing squalid conditions, abuse and forced denouncement of religion. Reports of deaths in the camps are frequent.

Yet countries across the world have remained notably quiet or lacklustre in their efforts to address the issue. At the UN Human Rights Council’s 2018 Review of China’s human rights, the UK did raise the matter directly with the Chinese; but unfortunately China does not recognise international conventions on civil and political rights. And in February 2018, Theresa May was the first UK Prime Minister in decades not to discuss human rights on a trip to China. Unsurprisingly she was widely praised by the Chinese state-run media.

It’s not just the UK’s Conservative government that has been decidedly meek in its attempts to raise the topic. Predominantly Muslim countries have been notably absent from the conversation too: earlier this year Imran Khan, president of Pakistan, was asked if Pakistan’s trading relationship with China meant that he would have to stay quiet on the Chinese Government’s treatment of the Uyghur people. He replied by saying he didn’t know enough about the situation.

In the meantime, human rights groups have likened the situation to cultural genocide. Former internment camp detainees have described region-wide bans on Uyghur culture and traditions. This is no small clamp-down. Xinjiang is a large landmass, and it is home to more than 20 million mostly Muslim Ugyhurs. So why have the international community been so quiet on the issue?

The most obvious reason for the silence is China’s growing economic strength and trading links. The current repressive situation began in 2009 as a Chinese government initiative to target terrorism. Over time this involved a ban on women wearing headscarves, men being forced to cut off their beards, a region-wide internet shut down, escalating to the current scale of human rights violations.

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Turkey was an initial critic of the situation in 2009 – but was quickly warned by Chinese state-run media to take back their comments. In 2015, Chinese state-run media also offered economic backing to Turkey but warned against any “irresponsible remarks on the ethnic policy in Xinjiang”. It’s an example of how hard China is willing to turn the screws on anyone who questions it.

The deplorable situation in Xinjiang is one to which our country cannot turn a blind eye. It is beyond time for our government to act. It needs to look beyond the domestic Brexit chaos and ensure they are doing all they can to help stop this gross violation of basic rights. On Tuesday next week I will use my debate to emphasise the desperate situation Uyghurs in Xinjiang are facing, and urge Theresa May and the Foreign Office to do everything in their power to bring an end to this atrocity.

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This is a moment when our standing on the works stage matters more than ever. The UK needs to speak out and to be heard. The notion of “global Britain” is meaningless if we are not prepared to do so.

Alistair Carmichael MP is the Liberal Democrat chief whip, and the former secretary of state for Scotland.