Kiwi Jewish, Muslim communities call for Government action in response to Uighur treatment

Representatives from New Zealand's Jewish and Muslim communities have written a letter imploring the Government to take action in response to the persecution of the Uighur people in China.

The treatment of Muslim Uighurs held in camps in China's Xinjiang province continues to be overwhelmingly criticised. The topic is back in the headlines in the United Kingdom, with the BBC earlier this month showing the UK Chinese Ambassador drone footage posted last year of Uighurs being blindfolded and led onto trains. 

Former detainees at the camps have previously spoken of torture and brainwashing as authorities try to force prisoners to reject their faith. There are believed to be more than 1 million Uighurs detained. But China has rejected accusations of human rights breaches, saying the camps are for vocational education and counter-terrorism operations. 

The New Zealand Jewish Council and the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand have now written to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, calling on New Zealand to join other nations in considering action against China. 

The letter, dated July 23, expresses gratitude to Jacinda Ardern for mentioning the Uighur people in a speech to the Chinese-New Zealand business community on Monday.

"However, we also ask that the Government shows the moral leadership that New Zealand is known for, including after the Mosque attacks of last year, and urgently join with the United Kingdom and other allies in taking a stand, whether that be through sanctions or some other form. And we must call this persecution what it is; Genocide."

The letter says that while there have been many "grave human rights violations" since World War II, "we have witnessed nothing of the nature, magnitude and sophistication of what the Uighur people are now suffering". 

The Uighurs are suffering "abhorrent treatment for no other reason than that their Muslim faith and their culture is considered undesirable by the regime", it says.

Juliet Moses, from the New Zealand Jewish Council, told Newshub that as more material comes to light about the Uighurs' treatment, the organisations felt a need to speak up. 

They understand, however, the complex situation Aotearoa finds itself in. China is New Zealand's largest trading partner. 

"There are a lot of factors at play here. We have got a close relationship with China. I think we all understand that and the importance of the trade relationship in particular, but there are actions that are available or options that are available. Sanctions are one thing and I know that is being discussed now in the UK and putting together some allies who would join in with them on that," Moses said.

"Another action, extreme though it is, is to expel the Chinese ambassador. Action through the UN… There are a range of things I think that can be done and certainly that should be explored." 

The United Kingdom has ramped up its rhetoric over the last week, with the nation's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accusing China of "gross and egregious" human rights abuses and not ruling out sanctions. The Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom has denied there are "concentration camps" in Xinjiang.

"There's a lot of fake accusations against China."

US President Donald Trump's administration has taken a hard line against China in response to the treatment of Uighurs, most recently restricting the ability of some Chinese companies to access American technology because it claimed they're linked to activities in Xinjiang.

The United States has taken a hard line against China.
The United States has taken a hard line against China. Photo credit: Getty / Human Rights Watch.

While Moses told Newshub she is hopeful growing awareness of the situation may "prompt the Government into action", whether she is confident that will happen "is another matter".

"There is always politics at play, both domestically and geopolitically. We have obviously got an election looming on the horizon as well. There is a lot going on here."

But she said there are some issues that should "transcend politics", noting that after the Holocaust people promised "never again", but still atrocities occur. 

"People do say 'never again' and how could we have let this happen. That means that we do actually have to take meaningful action otherwise we will be looking back in a few years and saying 'we didn't know' or 'we wish we did something more'. I am not prepared to be that person."

Moses said the New Zealand Jewish and Muslim communities aren't "big players on the world stage" and Aoteaora is a "tiny country in the world", but sometimes "conscience just calls on you to do what you can".

There is a lot New Zealanders can do to show their support, she said.

"I think writing to the Government, petitions, protests possibly outside the Chinese Embassy or the consulate in Auckland, and just talking about it with other people, sharing articles on social media. Just trying to drum up awareness and support and then convert that into some kind of action through pressuring the Government.

Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty.

Asked for his response to the letter, Foreign Minister Winston Peters told Newshub the Government shared concerns expressed internationally about the situation in Xinjiang.

"New Zealand has raised these concerns directly with China in bilateral engagements, including with China’s leaders last year. We have also signalled our concern in multilateral meetings, most recently by joining a statement at the UN Human Rights Council just last month."

On top of her comments on Monday, Prime Minister Ardern has said she raised "the issue [of human rights] directly" with China's President Xi Jingping and Premier Li Keqiang during a visit to Beijing in April last year. 

New Zealand was also a signatory to a joint statement last July calling out China.

Newshub has contacted the Prime Minister's Office for response to the new letter.

The Chinese Embassy in New Zealand pointed Newshub to comments by the Chinese Foreign Ministry's spokesperson at his daily press conference on Thursday.

Wang Wenbin, who according to China's state-run Global Times began in the role last week, said his nation has "repeatedly responded to and rebuked false reports and accusations surrounding Xinjiang" and that calling the sites "concentration camps" with one million Uighurs was a "lie".

"The issue concerning Xinjiang is by no means about human rights, religion or ethnicity, but about combating violent terrorism and separatism," he said.

In Wenbin's lengthy response, the spokesperson claimed that at the "vocational education and training centres" human rights must be respected and personal insults are prohibited. He lists the rights "trainees" have, such as freedom of movement and to use their own language. 

"Freedom of religious belief is fully respected and protected. Trainees can decide on their own whether to attend legitimate religious activities when they go home."

Kiwi Uighurs Newshub has previously spoken to have expressed their concerns about returning to China or communicating with family there as that might get them in trouble with local authorities.

Among information found in leaked classified Chinese Government documents last year was a manual discussing how officials should indoctrinate the detainees, how to keep the camps secret and how to stop anyone escaping.

After Ardern's speech on Monday, China's Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi, said the two countries should "support each other on issues on sovereignty and territorial integrity".

"China has always followed the principle of non-interference in others' internal affairs… Issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet all touch on China's sovereignty and security and these are all China's internal affairs."

The New Zealand Prime Minister's comments also got a mention from Wenbin on Wednesday. 

He said the China and Aotearoa are "each other's important partners for cooperation" and are willing to work together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I need to stress that we stand firmly against foreign interference in China's domestic affairs under the pretext of Hong Kong, Xinjiang or human rights. China is resolutely determined to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests," Wenbin said.

Peters has been outspoken recently about China, announcing earlier this month that New Zealand would review its relationship with Hong Kong after China passed a new security law allowing extradition to the Chinese mainland.