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Why Israel and Switzerland Stayed Silent on Uyghur Human Rights in China


FILE - A farmer walks past propaganda depicting ethnic minority residents reading the constitution with slogans which reads, "Unity Stability is fortune, Separatism and Turmoil is misfortune," near Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on March 19, 2021.

Human rights activists are expressing surprise at the failure of Israel and Switzerland to participate in a joint statement criticizing China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority.

France delivered the statement on behalf of 43 countries at the United Nations last month.

Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, poses at a United States-backed Uyghur photo exhibit of dozens of people who are missing or alleged to be held in Chinese-run camps in Xinjiang, China in front of the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 1
Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, poses at a United States-backed Uyghur photo exhibit of dozens of people who are missing or alleged to be held in Chinese-run camps in Xinjiang, China in front of the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 1

The two countries “have signed previous statements, especially Switzerland, which has always joined collective statements condemning atrocities in East Turkistan,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, who used the Uyghurs’ preferred name for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China in an interview with VOA.

Varied responses to China and Uyghurs

In the joint statement, France's U.N. Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière said the signatory countries "are particularly concerned about the situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” He added that credible reports “indicate the existence of a large network of ‘political re-education’ camps where over a million people have been arbitrarily detained.”

The French ambassador to the United Nations Nicolas de Riviere talks to reporters before a Security Council meeting, Jan. 3, 2020.
The French ambassador to the United Nations Nicolas de Riviere talks to reporters before a Security Council meeting, Jan. 3, 2020.

The statement called on China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang for independent observers, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

China's U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, rejected the joint criticism as "unfounded” and likened the signatory countries the “henchmen” of the United States.

“Xinjiang enjoys stability, development and prosperity, and the Chinese people's life is getting better day by day,” Zhang said. “The Chinese people are satisfied with and proud of such achievements, and those achievements are widely recognized and praised by people around the world.”

Switzerland and Israel

In June at the United Nations in Geneva, Israel and Switzerland joined 42 other countries in signing a joint statement concerning Uyghur human rights in China.

Zhang Jun, permanent representative of China to the United Nations, speaks during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Sept. 23, 2021.
Zhang Jun, permanent representative of China to the United Nations, speaks during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Sept. 23, 2021.

But Switzerland’s foreign ministry spokesperson Pierre-Alain Eltschinger told VOA in an email that his country decided not to join in the latest statement because of various factors, including an upcoming “strategic dialogue” with China.

“Switzerland's substantive position on China and human rights remains unchanged,” Eltschinger wrote. “Switzerland continues to be concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and other parts of China.”

Eltschinger added that Switzerland assesses support for any joint statement on a case-by-case basis. “Switzerland will continue to join joint statements in the future when it deems it appropriate,” he said.

Israel’s foreign ministry and the embassy of Israel in Washington did not respond to questions from VOA about its decision not to sign the October statement.

However, the Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom, a grassroots Jewish rights organization, suggested that the Israeli government is bargaining with China in order to “preserve” relations.

“It was on the right side of the Uyghur issue in June when it signed an earlier statement, and we call on [Israel] to reestablish this position,” the group said in an email to VOA.

Isa said it is not unprecedented at the United Nations for a country to shift its position on Uyghur human rights in the face of diplomatic pressure from China.

“During the last statement in June, Ukraine was initially part of the joint statement delivered by 44 U.N. member states. However, it withdrew its signature shortly after, because of the vaccine diplomacy that China exercised against Ukraine,” Isa said.

Sixty-two countries including Cuba signed onto a joint statement opposing interference in China’s internal affairs in the name of human rights, according to Chinese state media.

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