The United States, Germany and Britain have clashed with China at the United Nations over its treatment of the Uighurs and people from other mostly Muslim groups in Xinjiang, as they pressed ahead with a virtual event that Beijing had lobbied UN member states to stay away from.

“We will keep standing up and speaking out until China’s government stops its crimes against humanity and the genocide of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the event, which organisers said was attended by about 50 countries on Wednesday.

The UN, some western countries, academics and rights groups say hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have been sent to re-education camps in the far western region. China has acknowledged the camps’ existence but says they are vocational skills training centres necessary to tackle hardline groups.

“In Xinjiang, people are being tortured. Women are being forcibly sterilised,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard told the event there were an estimated one million Uighurs and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities being arbitrarily detained.

In a note to UN member states last week, China’s UN mission rejected the accusations as “lies and false allegations” and accused the organising countries of being “obsessed with provoking confrontation with China”.

It urged countries “NOT to participate in this anti-China event,” but on Wednesday a Chinese diplomat did address the accusations.

“China has nothing to hide on Xinjiang,” said Chinese diplomat Guo Jiakun. “Xinjiang is always open. We welcome everyone to visit Xinjiang but we oppose any kind of investigation based on lies and with the presumption of guilt.”

The event was organised by Germany, the US and Britain and co-sponsored by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several other European nations.

Barbara Woodward, the British ambassador to the UN told the meeting there was “evidence of mass arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and incidences of torture. There are further reports of widespread forced labour and sterilisation”.

Calls for access

There have also been reports of the destruction of Muslim cemeteries, the separation of children and Uighurs being forced to eat pork in violation of their religious beliefs.

“We are here today to face these facts. And to ask China to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office,” said Woodward.

“We appeal on China to respect the universal declaration of human rights and we asked China to tear down the detention camps,” German ambassador Christoph Heusgen added.

“If you have nothing to hide, why don’t you finally grant unimpeded access to the high commissioner for human rights?,” he asked of China.

Levelled land in Kuqa, China that was once a Muslim cemetery [File: Hector Retamal/AFP]

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet was not at the event and her absence was noted by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth.

“I’m sure she’s busy,” he said. “You know we all are. But I have a similar global mandate to defend human rights and I couldn’t think of anything more important to do than to join you here today.”

Ravina Shamdasani, the deputy spokesperson for the UN Human Rights office, said Bachelet – who has expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang – was unable to participate.

“The High Commissioner continues to engage with the Chinese authorities on the modalities for such a visit,” she said, adding that Bachelet’s office “continues to gather and analyse relevant information and follow the situation closely.”

Later on Wednesday, at the launch of its annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world, a US State Department official, accused China of turning Xinjiang into an “open-air prison“.

Daniel Nadel, a senior official in the State Department’s Office of International Freedom, said the population was being closely monitored.

“People’s movements are closely tracked,” he said at a news briefing. “You have minders who have been assigned to live with Uighurs to keep tabs on them. You have people going to the market who have to check in every time they go to a different market stall,” he said.

The report also detailed China’s persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual group.

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