Jacinda Ardern, Judith Collins coy on question of genocide against Uighurs in China's Xinjiang ahead of caucus discussions

Politicians are on Tuesday grappling with the question of whether China is committing genocide against the Uighur people in the Xinjiang province. 

The ACT Party last week announced it was filing a motion for Parliament to debate the issue, describing it as "an act of solidarity" with the Canadian and British Parliaments, which earlier this year called China's oppression of about 1 million Uighurs crimes against humanity.

MPs are considering their positions within their respective political parties on whether to back the motion. The leaders of both Labour and National were coy ahead of their meetings. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Labour's leader, said "genocide" had a specific meaning that needed to be considered. 

"What is being discussed today will be a response to a very particular issue of whether or not a genocide is declared," Ardern told reporters. "The use of that term in the international environment, there is international law that sits around it."

"There will be a discussion around what should we be pushing for so that we have support for the international community to build evidence around that next step. That does not undermine the current position that we have which is very strong."

The use of the word genocide is tied to the United Nations (UN) Genocide Convention, signed in 1948 in the wake of World War II and which has been ratified by New Zealand. 

It defines genocide as any of several acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group". Those acts include killing members of a group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group or imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group.

Ardern on Tuesday wouldn't explicitly say if she personally believed genocide was occurring. 

"My view, and the view of many members of the international community, is that when you step into language like genocide there is international law that sits around the use of that," she said.

"The international community, New Zealand amongst them, has been calling for the ability, unfettered access, for independent individuals to go in and to be able to establish whether or not that indeed is occurring." 

Jacinda Ardern speaking to the China Business Summit on Monday.
Jacinda Ardern speaking to the China Business Summit on Monday. Photo credit: Newshub.

However, during an event on Friday evening, Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi suggested any visit to Xinjiang by observers would have strict conditions. 

"The purpose of the visit should not be an investigation or accountability with the presumption of guilt. This should not be the purpose," she said. "China is a sovereign country and people need to respect China's sovereignty and they need to comply with all the laws and regulations in China."

Wu said she doesn't believe there "is any absolute, unfettered access anywhere in the world" and repeated China's assertion that there are no human rights abuses occurring in Xinjiang. 

National leader Judith Collins said it was an issue her party takes "very seriously" and wants access to all information the Government currently has on it. She also wouldn't give her own personal view on Tuesday morning. 

"We would like to see the information that the Government has on that. They have not shared that with us...We are a sovereign nation. We have to make our decisions as a Parliament."

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta in March released a statement saying there is "clear evidence of severe human rights abuses" in Xinjiang, including "forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilisation". 

Considering the minister was saying there is clear evidence of sterilisation, one of the acts under the UN Genocide Convention - "imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group" - Collins was asked if the Government should just get on with declaring a genocide. 

"I think the Government needs to give us all the information that they clearly have. We haven't seen that information," she responded. 

Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said it was clear the Chinese government wouldn't like New Zealand declaring a genocide and there likely would be trade repercussions.

Labour MP and Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood told reporters on Tuesday morning that New Zealand has "serious concerns", but he currently doesn't believe in using the word "genocide".

"The term genocide has a very specific meaning in international law and that hasn't been established. We have been really clear that we are not using that language. We have those serious concerns. We have expressed those," he said. 

"If you start playing fast and loose with a particular word with the significance of that one, you do potentially degrade it. There have to be independent investigations into this and that has been New Zealand's position."

The Green Party and Maori Party will also be considering their stances. Members from both parties have previously spoken out against activities in Xinjiang. 

Judith Collins spoke to reporters ahead of her caucus meeting.
Judith Collins spoke to reporters ahead of her caucus meeting. Photo credit: Newshub.

Consequences are 'massive'

International law expert Professor Alexander Gillespie told Newshub that having a debate about allegations of genocide in public was a good thing, but he didn't want to see it become a "political football".

While he advocated for independent observers being allowed into Xinjiang, he acknowledged that China may stonewall their access. 

"I argue that a time limit needs to be set, for otherwise, it could look like appeasement (if we argue for UN expert access, and China continually says no, and nothing changes)," he said.

"An alternative option would be for NZ to try to get to the front of the issue – and get an independent NZ invited team in (although that is very unlikely, and likely to annoy everyone if the offer was made) to examine the situation."

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Secretary Chris Seed spoke 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."

Gillespie said the consequences of declaring a genocide are "massive".

"If one is declared, ethically, no country should have anything to do with the country that is performing it. In some cases, if one is found, it can be argued that military intervention is necessary to prevent the atrocity," he said. 

"At the simpler level, if one is found, companies often try to distance themselves from the locations, or country, where the alleged atrocities are occurring. Simply, the implications are far too big to pretend that nothing is happening. Turkey is still arguing about declarations of genocide around Armenians -  that happened over a century ago."

He expects such a declaration would make China "very angry" and trade retaliation was possible.

With China being New Zealand's largest trading partner, Collins on Tuesday said trade was the "elephant in the room" when discussing Parliament's potential action.

The Uyghur Solidarity Aotearoa NZ group is among those calling on Parliament to declare a genocide. On Tuesday, it released excerpts of a letter written to the Prime Minister and MPs from members of the Uighur community.

"We believe that this declaration would defend New Zealand’s values, and align New Zealand with our allies to do our part to stop the horrific crimes against humanity unfolding in Xinjiang (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region [XUAR])," part of the letter says. 

"We understand that New Zealand is not a military superpower, or a trade superpower, however, New Zealand is a moral superpower. We can influence the fate of the 20 million Uyghur people suffering back home."

In regards to the Government's position on whether genocide is occurring, Mahuta last week told Newshub that it needed to consider further information.

"[I have] asked for wider advice around what are the processes and considerations that go into determining a genocide," she said. "This requires complex legal and factual assessments and is not a process the Government could undertake lightly."

New Zealand has consistently raised "grave concern" about human rights abuses in Xinjiang. On Monday, Ardern told the China Business Summit that she had expressed her concerns with senior Chinese leaders on numerous occasions. 

A large number of 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, saying camps are for vocational education and counter-terrorism activities, testimonials suggest the Uighurs are subjected to torture, brainwashing, forced labour and sterilisation as authorities attempt to eradicate their religion and suppress birth rates.