NEW DELHI: The recently released United Nations (UN) report on the condition of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang has generated grave concerns and discussion at the international level as this is for the first time that an independent assessment of Xinjiang has confirmed the atrocities being faced by Muslims in Xinjiang at the hands of the Chinese government. The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), an international organization of exiled Uyghurs, is among the most prominent of bodies to raise the issue of Uyghurs in China. It has been termed as a terrorist organization by the Chinese government and its president Dolkun Isa is facing a Red Corner notice issued by the Interpol on behalf of the Chinese government.

Isa spoke on the impact of the UN report, the “hypocrisy” of the Islamic countries in coming together and asking China to stop the torture of Muslims in Xinjiang and other related issues. Edited excerpts:

Q: How is this report different from other similar reports that have been released in the past detailing the atrocities that are being done by the Chinese government against the Uyghur population?

A: For years, the World Uyghur Congress and other Uyghur and rights groups have urged the OHCHR to assess the human rights abuses and present its finding in a report. In the past, there have been many important investigations into and communications on the atrocities, such as the 2018 CERD review and numerous civil society investigations. But the OHCHR’s report finally puts the UN’s stamp on these investigations, finding that the evidence is credible and presenting a well-informed and independent assessment of the situation. China cannot reject the OHCHR’s report as a US or Western-led campaign, as it objectively presents the established facts.

Q: China, while exercising its right to respond, released a 131-page report denying the findings of the UN report. One of the main points that it has made in its 131-page submission is that a significant number of Uyghurs were taking part in terrorist activities and hence the action that the government has taken is justified. How do you respond to this?

A: As the OHCHR report also points out, serious human rights abuses are carried out under the cover of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism. The report found that in fact, China’s counter-terrorism laws are discriminatory and target Uyghurs for their ethnic and religious identity. China’s claim that a number of Uyghurs have taken part in terrorist activities falls within this narrative. While there have been a few isolated violent incidents in response to China’s decade-long policy of discrimination and repression of the Uyghur people, its current policies are in no way intended to be about counter-terrorism. Even in my individual case, China has claimed I have taken part in these so-called “terrorist activities”, leading to a 20-year-long Interpol Red Notice, but has never been able to present evidence confirming these allegations.

Q: China has also claimed that it has introduced programmes in Xinjiang that have pulled the Uyghur population out of poverty and it has taken all steps to preserve the cultural and linguistic identity of the Uyghurs. Would you challenge this assertion?

A: There are no indications that China has done anything to the benefit of the Uyghur population in the region. What China calls “poverty alleviation” measures are justifications for its widespread state-sponsored programmes of forced labour to which it has subjected to the Uyghurs. These programmes tear apart Uyghur communities for China’s own economic benefit. Furthermore, instead of preserving the cultural and linguistic identity of the Uyghurs, the Chinese government has tried everything in its power to eradicate these. From cultural destruction to bans on the teaching of the Uyghur language in schools, these are all policies aimed at destroying the Uyghur identity.

Q: While the UN reports mention detention camps, the Chinese government response speaks nothing about any such camps. What is the present situation on the ground? Are there any detention camps there? If yes, then how many people are staying in them? And what proof can you share about the presence of such camps?

A: While China acknowledges the existence of the camps, it calls them “Vocational Education and Training Centres”, and it has claimed all Uyghurs have “graduated” from them in 2019. However, the available evidence, which includes witness testimony and satellite imagery, points to the contrary. According to credible research, hundreds of these camps still remain, and are even being expanded. As to the number of people detained, estimates vary, but mostly refer to between 1 and 3 million, based on the extent of the internment camp system and size of the camps. As mentioned, the presence of these camps is well-established by now.

Q: No Islamic country and groupings, including Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which are otherwise very vocal on the issues surrounding Muslim community members, have come out in support of the Uyghur Muslims which has, in some way, according to experts and observers, helped the Chinese government to carry out the atrocities against the Uyghurs. How do you see this “hypocrisy”?

A: The silence of the governments of Muslim-majority countries is a great hypocrisy. While these governments rightly protest forms of Islamophobia in other countries worldwide, they remain silent, or even express their support, in the face of crimes against humanity and an ongoing genocide in China. While the Chinese government has called Islam an “ideological illness” and is practically waging a war against Islam in the Uyghur Region, Muslim-majority governments say nothing, and conveniently prefer to safeguard their economic relations with China over speaking out for millions of their Muslim brothers and sisters.

Q: Which are the countries you believe are speaking up for Uyghurs at the global level? Do you count India on that list?

A: There is a broad coalition of countries that are speaking up for Uyghurs at the global level. Most recently, at the June HRC session, 47 countries signed on to a joint statement expressing concern over the situation. Unfortunately, India was not one of those countries, so it must do more to support the Uyghurs.

Q: Moving forward, how do you intend to “fight” the cause of the Uyghurs? And don’t you think you are fighting a losing battle, especially when you consider the role that China plays as a member of the Permanent-5 member of the UNSC.

A: While it is true that advocating against China is difficult, and at times dangerous, there are various opportunities for the international community to take appropriate action. Until now, action has mostly been limited to expressions of concern, but with the US introducing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) and the EU set to introduce a forced labour import ban soon, such concrete action can make a difference. We hope that the UN report will be the start of more concrete actions that are focused on accountability and justice. Crucial to such action is that it is done collaboratively. China must come to bear a real cost for what it is doing to the Uyghur people. I am convinced that is able to make a difference.

Q: What can big corporations, apart from respective governments, do to help the people living in Xinjiang, considering that many of the world commodities produced by these MNCs are being produced at these camps in Xinjiang?

A: Corporations must immediately take appropriate action to ensure they are not complicit in these human rights abuses. Basically, any product that is produced in part or in whole in the Uyghur region is at high risk of being tainted by Uyghur forced labour. As there are no viable ways to conduct due diligence or ensure there is no forced labour taking place, the only reasonable response is to disengage from the region and source or produce products elsewhere. Companies must live up to their sustainability commitments, and stop exposing its consumers to products tainted by Uyghur forced labour.