Jacinda Ardern's 'grave concern' after reports of systematic rape in China's Uighur camps

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has condemned reports of systematic rape in China's secretive Uighur camps, describing it as "an issue of grave concern" for New Zealand. 

New Zealand joins the US, UK and Australia in speaking out against the camps after a BBC investigation detailed allegations of systematic rape of Uighur women detained in China's internment camps in the Xinjiang region. 

It's estimated more than a million Uighurs - a mostly Muslim Turkic minority group that number about 11 million in Xinjiang - have been detained in the camps, which have been widely condemned as akin to prisons. 

China says the training centres offer classes on Mandarin, laws, regulations and vocational skills training; and provide counter-terrorism training and psychological counselling for those affected by "extremist thoughts".

But the BBC has gathered testimonies from women who spent time in the camps, detailing allegations of gang rape and sexual abuse. 

A Kazakh woman from Xinjiang who was detained for 18 months in the camp system told the BBC she was forced to strip Uighur women naked and handcuff them, before leaving them alone with Chinese men, who would force themselves on the women. 

"They forced me to take off those women's clothes and to restrain their hands and leave the room," the woman called Gulzira Auelkhan told the BBC. 

The camps have come under frequent international scrutiny. Former detainees have spoken of torture and brainwashing at the facilities in Xinjiang, and women being forcibly sterilised.

In July 2019, a Uyghur man living in New Zealand told Newshub Nation he feared for his safety after receiving threatening phone calls from the Chinese Embassy.

A US State Department spokesperson described the BBC's latest findings as deeply disturbing, and that they must be met with "serious consequences". 

The UK says it intends to lead international efforts to hold China to account on the Uighur issue, while Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne says the United Nations needs to be given "immediate" access to the Xinjiang region.

With our allies united in speaking out against the allegations raised by the BBC, Ardern told reporters on Friday that New Zealand is no less horrified. 

"We have consistently as a nation raised concerns around what we've seen with the Uighurs. We've raised it at the highest level. I raised it face-to-face with the leadership when we were in Beijing. This report just adds to that concern and we will continue to raise those issues," she said. 

"I don't know what could be stronger than raising it face-to-face with the leadership in Beijing."

Ahead of Ardern's trip to Beijing in April 2019, Human Rights Watch urged her to "publicly express concern about mass abuses of Turkic Muslims in meetings with Chinese leaders".

Ardern said at the time she "raised the issue directly" with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing. "You can't do much more than that."

In a speech to the Chinese business community in July last year, Ardern spoke out in support of Uighurs, and also raised concerns about China's controversial security law imposed in Hong Kong, as well as China's reluctance to let Taiwan join the WHO.  

In July, the Government suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in light of China's decision to pass the controversial security law for the city. 

China responded by suspending Hong Kong's extradition treaty with New Zealand. The Chinese Embassy urged New Zealand to "stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs" and do more to promote the good aspects of the relationship. 

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta highlighted China as an important partner for New Zealand during her inaugural foreign policy speech in Waitangi on Thursday evening. 

Last week, New Zealand and China signed an upgraded bilateral free trade agreement (FTA). Mahuta said the FTA has been a "platform for closer trade and economic cooperation", with two-way trade now at $32 billion. 

China recently praised New Zealand as "an example" for Australia in dealing with foreign affairs, after Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said our trans-Tasman partner should practice more diplomacy with China. 

Ardern said despite China being an important partner for New Zealand it will not stop the Government from speaking out in support of the Uighur people. 

"I would really push back on the trivialisation of the strong stance New Zealand has taken on this issue. They are an indigenous Muslim community, this is really important for us to make sure that we are showing our strong perspective on the issue," she said. 

"We have done it at the highest level. We have joined with countries in making joint statements in multilateral forums and we will continue to do so because it is an issue of grave concern to New Zealand and to New Zealanders."

The Chinese Embassy in New Zealand has been contacted for a response.