New Zealand, Australia welcome sanctions over China's alleged Uighur atrocities

New Zealand and Australia have added their voices to fresh condemnation of China for its alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, but Aotearoa is still yet to call the atrocities a "genocide".

Three members of the Five Eyes alliance - the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada - as well as the European Union on Tuesday imposed sanctions on Chinese officials linked to human rights breaches against the Uighur people in Xinjiang. 

The sanctions have been described by UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab as coordinated "intensive diplomacy" by the governments targeting the "perpetrators of gross human rights violations". China responded by applying sanctions on 10 EU figures, including lawmakers.

New Zealand doesn't have standalone legislation to impose our own sanctions independently to what is imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

However, Aotearoa did on Tuesday join with Australia to condemn China's actions, specifically noting that there is "clear evidence" of abuse. 

"The New Zealand and Australian Governments today reiterate their grave concerns about the growing number of credible reports of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang," foreign affairs ministers Nanaia Mahuta and Marise Payne said.

"In particular, there is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation."

China has always rejected accusations that human rights breaches are occurring in Xinjiang, saying that camps in the region are instead sites of vocational training and counter-terrorism operations. That's contrary to a plethora of international reports and first-hand testimonials from Uighurs who have escaped the camps. 

The ministers welcomed the measures announced by the UK, US, Canada and EU and said they "share these countries' deep concerns".

"Since 2018, when reports began to emerge about the detention camps in Xinjiang, Australia and New Zealand have consistently called on China in the United Nations to respect the human rights of the Uyghur people, and other religious and ethnic minorities.

"Today we underscore the importance of transparency and accountability, and reiterate our call on China to grant meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for United Nations experts, and other independent observers."

This year has seen a dramatic shift in the rhetoric used by countries against China's actions in Xinjiang. The US in January became the first nation to label the Uighurs' treatment as genocide. Canada and Denmark have since made similar moves.

A landmark independent report from a Washington DC think tank earlier this month found that China was breaching every prohibited act of the UN Genocide Convention and said the Chinese state had an "intent to destroy the Uyghurs as a group".

New Zealand hasn't referred to the abuses as a genocide, with Mahuta repeatedly reiterating her support for a UN observer to be sent to Xinjiang to "report on exactly what is happening there". 

Newshub reported in February that there was some support in the New Zealand Parliament for a motion declaring a genocide. 

The ACT Party said it would support a motion similar to what was introduced in Canada "recognising the atrocities that more and more countries now acknowledge". National said it was something that should be seriously considered.

While in China in 2019, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Aotearoa has also been party to several international statements on the abuses, including in October.

Following the United States' declaration of genocide, Labour MP Louisa Wall, a member of the International Parliamentary Alliance on China, told Newshub a possible next step would be for  the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate Chinese leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity.