New Zealand MPs' debate over China's Xinjiang won't be about 'genocide' after Labour request to 'soften language' - ACT

ACT's parliamentary motion on China's treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang no longer contains the word 'genocide', after Labour requested it "soften the language".

The revised motion, as it reads on Parliament's Final Order Paper on Wednesday morning and which will be put forward in the afternoon, now asks MPs to consider if "possible severe human rights abuses" are underway in the north-western Chinese province. 

That language pales in comparison to a March statement from Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta, which said there is "clear evidence of severe human rights abuses" - including restrictions of freedom of religion, mass surveillance and sterilisation. 

The Uighur Solidarity Aotearoa NZ group says the change of wording is a "farce" and MPs wanting 'genocide' removed from the motion are acting callously. 

When ACT's Brooke Van Velden last week announced she would file a motion, she said it would be worded similarly to one passed last month in the British Parliament, asking representatives whether the atrocities in Xinjiang were "acts of genocide".

However, Van Velden now says the word 'genocide' has been removed at Labour's request. 

"I have worked with all parties across Parliament to ensure we came up with a consensus on the motion so that this important debate could go ahead," she said. 

"Labour wanted to soften the language and remove the word 'genocide'. It's a sad state of affairs that we need to soften our language to debate the hard issues. We have been willing to make this compromise in order for a debate to take place at all."

Van Velden said ACT will "continue to call this what it is, a genocide". 

"New Zealand must assert ourselves and our values and not be picked on by one country," she said. "We cannot sit by as a democratic nation as a genocide is happening in one of our largest trading partners. It’s a matter of human rights."

Newshub has approached the Prime Minister's Office for comment on the change of wording.

Brooke Van Velden.
Brooke Van Velden. Photo credit: Newshub.

Labour discussed the initial motion at its Caucus meeting on Tuesday morning, with Jacinda Ardern saying beforehand that the meaning of genocide was tied to international law. 

"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."

Trade Minister Damien O'Connor warned of the trade repercussions of Parliament declaring acts of genocide occurring in New Zealand's largest trading partner, while Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michel Wood said genocide, as defined internationally, had not yet been established. 

Following Labour's Caucus meeting, Mahuta refused to reveal the outcome, but there were discussions on Tuesday afternoon about the wording of the motion in order to get Labour's support. 

National, the Greens and the Māori Party have all also said they will back the motion being debated.

The revised motion, as it reads on the Final Order Paper, says: "That this House is gravely concerned about the possible severe human rights abuses taking place against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and that it calls on the Government to work with the United Nations, international partners, and to work with all relevant instruments of international law to bring these abuses to an end."

However, the removal of 'genocide' as the descriptor has angered the Uighur Solidary Aotearoa NZ group.

"This is a disgrace," said spokesperson Sam Vincent. "The Green Party backed the motion to discuss whether genocide is occurring. Labour should have done the same... Labour's refusal to allow this debate in Parliament is callous."

He said it was a "farce" that the motion was now less damning about China's oppression of the Uighur people than the Government's previous statement on Xinjiang.

The decision not to vote on, or even debate, the issue of genocide distances New Zealand from the Canadian and British Parliaments, that have said crimes against humanity are underway. The United States has also said genocide is occurring. 

New Zealand has come under scrutiny recently for its decision not to sign up to Five Eyes statements criticising human rights abuses in China, saying it would rather make its concerns clear in other forums. 

On Tuesday, members of the Uighur community in New Zealand released excerpts of a letter sent to MPs ahead of the debate. 

"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]).

"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."

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty..

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 and subject to torture as authorities attempt to eradicate their religion and suppress birth rates. China has also denied abusing the indigenous population. 

A 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 UN Genocide Convention. That convention, ratified by New Zealand,  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.

In line with the Government and international community's long-held position, Ardern on Tuesday again called for unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers. However, Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi on Friday signalled any visit to the region 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.