ACT to file motion in Parliament asking to debate if China committing 'genocide' against Uighurs

The ACT Party will on Wednesday ask Parliament to debate whether the treatment of the Uighur people in China's Xinjiang amounts to acts of genocide. 

While the Canadian and British Parliaments have made such a declaration, New Zealand has largely stayed quiet on the issue of genocide, instead raising concern about activities in the north-western Chinese province through diplomatic statements. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta told Newshub Nation on Saturday she was open to receiving advice about potentially labelling the treatment of Uighurs a genocide but the ACT Party will look to force the issue soon.

Brooke van Velden, ACT's Foreign Affairs spokesperson, said her party will file a motion on Wednesday similar to that passed in the UK asking representatives "to debate whether or not the atrocities occurring in China under the Chinese Communist Party's watch is acts of genocide."

"We have a responsibility as a country that is dedicated to the rule of law to stand up for the dignity and human rights of all people and we should be using our voice as representatives to raise our concern especially when it comes to acts of atrocities in one of our largest trading partners," the MP told Newshub.

"We are putting forward this motion as an act of solidarity with our democratic partners who have done the same in Britain and in Canada.

"New Zealand cannot sit by as a democratic nation, if crimes against humanity are occurring in one of our largest trading partners, because it's a matter of human rights."

The motion would require Labour's support to pass due to the governing party's majority in the House. If passed, it would make clear representatives believe the Uighurs and other religious minorities in Xinjiang are suffering crimes against humanity and genocide. It would also call on the Government to fulfil its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

That United Nations Convention, passed in 1948, defines genocide as acts committed "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group". It includes killing members of a group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, and imposing measures to prevent births. 

A landmark report in March from the Washington DC-based think tank NewlInes Institute of Strategy and Policy found China was breaching every prohibited act of the Convention. 

It and a large number of other independent reports released over the last few years have painted a grim picture of activities within Xinjiang where more than 1 million Uighurs are thought to be confined to concentration camps. 

While China has always denied abusing the indigenous population, testimonials suggest the Uighurs are subjected to torture, brainwashing, forced labour and sterilisation as authorities attempt to eradicate their religion and suppress birth rates. 

In response to a request for comment from Newshub, the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand said accusations China is committing genocide against the Uighur people is "in total disregard of facts and common sense". 

The embassy said the Uighur population had grown between 2010 and 2018 and that people in Xinjiang are "living and working in peace and contentment".  Millions of impoverished people have been lifted from poverty, the embassy said.

"The Xinjiang-related issues are in nature counter-violent terrorism, de-radicalisation and anti-separatism, and they bear on China's sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security which allows no foreign interference." 

Van Velden said on Wednesday that there are "increasing reports of atrocities occurring that points to act of genocide" and the "fact that the Chinese Communist Party will not allow United National independent investigators in to see what is happening on the ground is of huge concern".

She also criticised the Labour Government for not acting urgently to declare a genocide.

"I think the Government is hoping to kick this issue to touch and they are delaying by asking for advice. If the Labour Government won't put forward their own motion, then the Act Party will because we have a duty to care about the dignity and the human rights of all people."

National's Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, told Newshub ACT's proposed motion would go nowhere without Labour's support and was "slightly in the scope of grandstand activity".

He said it's more important to know the Government's position and expects Mahuta would have previously had advice on the issue. 

"The information that she is getting should be made available to all parties in Parliament and the Government of New Zealand should lead any response to that information."

Gerry Brownlee.
Gerry Brownlee. Photo credit: Getty.

When questioned previously on whether New Zealand could declare a genocide, Mahuta has said she wants to see an independent UN observer sent to Xinjiang to investigate. 

That's something National is also pushing for and Brownlee said he has been told by Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi that China would look to facilitate that at the right time, noting the impacts of COVID-19. 

"I think that should be advanced as soon as possible as this isn't going to go away until there is greater certainty about it nor can there be a clarity of action until there is a greater certainty about it one way or another."

He said if there atrocities found to be taking place "on the scale we are told about, that might make the genocide test".

"But you have got to bear in mind that there are hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders at work today largely because of our trade with China. It is not a simple matter, it is not a straightforward matter, it is one the Government should definitely have a position on."

Brownlee asked NZ Foreign Affairs Secretary Chris Seed in February about the prospect of sending officials to Xinjiang. 

"We've regularly supported the idea of a visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We also talked to the Chinese Government about visits, including by our diplomatic staff," Seed said. 

"They are certainly willing to have our people go. They make much publicly of this, that diplomats from many countries go. We want to be very clear that if we visited, the basis on which we'd be able to make inquiries and meet our free movement and talk to who they want, and that sort of thing."

In March, it was reported the United Nations was in serious negotiations with China to allow UN officials access to Xinjiang "without restrictions".

The Green Party's Foreign Affairs spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman told Newshub earlier this year that any proposed motion "must first be agreed to by our Caucus as it came up". But she has condemned abuses in China and called for meaningful action. 

New Zealand has released several statements condemning China for its oppression of the Uighurs. In March, Mahuta and her Australian counterpart released a statement saying "there is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses". They welcomed coordinated sanctions from the US, UK, and Canada against officials linked to Xinjiang.

In a speech to the NZ China Council last week, Mahuta said there were some areas in which New Zealand and China "do not, cannot, and will not, agree", giving the example of issues in Xinjiang.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also raised human rights abuses with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019 and said in March New Zealand will continue to express concern

Mahuta's office has been contacted for comment about ACT's proposed motion.