New Zealand will continue to raise concern with China over Uighur human rights issues in Xinjiang - Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand will continue to raise concern with China over its treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, describing how Aotearoa deals with the issue as "entirely predictable". 

The international response to the atrocities underway in China's Xinjiang region escalated last week when three of New Zealand's Five Eyes partners - the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada - as well as the European Union sanctioned Chinese officials linked to the human rights abuses against the Uighur people. 

China hit back, imposing sanctions of its own against lawmakers, academics and other figures from the US, UK, EU and Canada. The Asian powerhouse has always rejected accusations of human rights breaches, claiming camps in Xinjiang are for counter-terrorism and vocational education purposes.

While New Zealand and Australia released a joint statement welcoming the sanctions placed on China, neither country dished out their own. That's because the countries lack the necessary legislation - referred to as Magnitsky-style laws -  that allows them to independently target sanctions towards individuals. Instead, we impose sanctions in line with the United Nations Security Council. 

Asked about China's activities in Xinjiang on Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Ardern noted New Zealand's inability to impose sanctions, but said Aotearoa did what it could to raise concern with China. 

"We have [...] though bilaterally made sure that we have raised those issues ourselves directly, face to face, and that is in keeping with the way that we as a nation deal with issues of concern and human rights concern to us," Ardern said. "We will continue to do that."

"We are entirely predictable in the way we're dealing with this issue. When we see a concern that we have, we raise it and we raise it directly."

The Prime Minister said she raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping while she was in Beijing in 2019 and that New Zealand was also a signatory to international statements on Xinjiang.

"Sometimes they've been with other nations, sometimes on our own, sometimes under UN banners, but it's a concern that we have raised and we will continue to raise," Ardern said. 

In their joint statement last week, New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said they had "grave concerns" about mounting international reports detailing the abuses against the Uighur people. 

"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."

The ministers said both New Zealand and Australia have consistently called on China to "grant meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for United Nations experts, and other independent observers."

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sunday confirmed that discussions continue between the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office and the Chinese authorities. 

"I hope that they will reach an agreement soon and that the human rights commissioner will be able to visit China without restrictions or limitations."

China responded to New Zealand and Australia's statement by calling on the countries to stay out of "China's internal affairs" and that allegations of forced labour and religious oppression were "simply malicious and politically-driven hypes".

Neither New Zealand nor Australia have yet officially labelled the treatment of the Uighurs as a genocide despite other countries, like the United States, doing so. An independent report from a Washington think tank last month found China was breaching every prohibited act of the UN Genocide Convention.