US and Australian responses to China’s maltreatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and Israel’s blockade of Gaza reveal glaring double standards. But no worse perhaps than those of many Muslim states hungry for China’s largesse.
At an event last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, more than 30 states condemned China’s “horrific campaign of repression” against the Uighur Muslim community in its north-west Xinjiang region. US Deputy Secretary of State, John Sullivan, told the gathering that UN members had a “singular responsibility to speak up when survivor after survivor recounts the horrors of state repression”. The UN, he said, must seek “immediate, unhindered and unmonitored” access to Xinjiang.
This was not the first call for action to protect the 11-million strong Uighur community. In July, ambassadors from 22 nations on the 47-member UN Human Rights Council had signed a joint letter to the Council President criticizing China’s “widespread surveillance” of Uighur and other minorities in Xinjiang and demanding that it end “mass arbitrary detentions and related violations”. Australia was among the signatories, along with NZ, Canada, Japan, and countries across Europe. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said at the time that Australia was “deeply concerned” about China’s actions.
An earlier article in ShareAmerica, a US State Department platform, had accused China of an ongoing campaign to supress its Muslim minorities, with more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other minority groups detained since April 2017. Even for those who avoided the internment camps, Xinjiang had become “an open-air prison” with China “using a combination of high- and low-tech surveillance and intimidation tactics”.
The US has now imposed visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist party officials accused of involvement in the mass internments. It has also placed export restrictions on US companies selling facial recognition and other surveillance technology to China. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned that “China must end its draconian surveillance and repression, release all those arbitrarily detained, and cease its coercion of Chinese Muslims abroad”.
China has reacted predictably, accusing critics of using religion and human rights “to slander and smear” its Xinjiang policies. Signatories to the July letter were “blatantly politicising” human rights and “grossly interfering” in China’s internal affairs. China’s embassy in Washington claimed that its “counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures” in Xinjiang were “to eradicate the breeding soil of extremism and terrorism”.
Shift our focus a little and we find another open-air prison. It’s the congested Palestinian enclave of Gaza, hemmed in by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. A 2012 UN report concluded that for Gaza to remain liveable in 2020 “herculean efforts” were needed in energy supply, education, health, water and sanitation. A later UN report concluded that the indicators were going in the wrong direction.
The misery of Gaza is not all the doing of its principal gaoler, Israel. The territory’s Islamist Hamas rulers have contributed much. Still, in the words of the Israeli Human Rights Organisation B’Tselem, Israel, which monitors almost all movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, pursues “a cruel, unjustifiable policy,” which sentences nearly two million people “to a life of abject poverty and nearly inhuman conditions”. Michael Lynk, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Palestinian Territories, commented in mid-2018 that Israel’s 11-year-old air, sea and land blockade had driven Gaza’s social and economic conditions steadily backwards and amounted to “collective punishment”. Gaza’s drinkable water was nearly exhausted, its unemployment rate the highest in the world, its anaemic economy “flat on its back”.
Logic would suggest that those human rights proponents offended by China’s actions in Xinjiang might speak up over the catastrophe that is Gaza. Yet the US and Australian governments are mostly mute. When violence erupted in Gaza in mid-2018, resulting in the death of more than 100 Palestinians and the wounding of thousands, the two countries voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution seeking to investigate Israel’s use of deadly forces. They argued that the resolution did not acknowledge Hamas’s role in the violence, a convenient reworking of then Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s assertion that there were “no innocent people in Gaza”.
Not satisfied with merely protecting Israel from scrutiny, the US and Australia have gone to considerable lengths to reward it. The US moved its embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018 and later recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (captured from Syria in 1967). Prime Minister Morrison announced Australia’s recognition of “West” Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, a geographic entity unknown in Israel. He suggested—utterly falsely—that such action might stimulate the comatose “peace process”.
For all this cant, however, the US and Australia have no mortgage on double standards. With their eyes seemingly dazzled by China’s bank balances, many Muslim majority nations—strident defenders of the Palestinian cause and also that of persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Burma—have lost their tongue when it comes to the Uighurs.
Just days after the 22-nation letter to the UNHRC president in July another one was circulated. Signed by 37 countries, including 15 members of the Council, and “echoing Beijing’s talking points” the letter spoke favourably of “counter terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centres”.
Remarkably, 20 of the letter’s signatories were members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Another was Pakistan, setting a new standard in double-speak. Determined not to offend its giant northern neighbour, this bespoke Muslim nation has accused Western media of sensationalising the Uighurs’ situation. Its Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has demanded self-determination in Muslim majority Kashmir while feigning ignorance about the plight of the Uighurs and publicly speaking of China as his country’s “best friend”.
Closer to Australia, the world’s largest Muslim state, Indonesia, has also been wary about taking up the Uighur cause. This contrasts dramatically with earlier Indonesian activism over the Rohingyas in Burma. It appears to reflect various concerns, including about separatism (with Papua very much in mind), that Indonesia’s “Islamic right” might be emboldened if the country speaks up about the Uighurs and that China, its largest trading partner, might be offended.
The world has long had a universal “declaration” of human rights. The story of Uighurs and Palestinians makes clear that universal “application” of such rights remains a pipedream. When principles are constantly taken hostage by narrow political and other self-interests they hardly seem worthy of the name.
Peter Rodgers is a former Australian ambassador to Israel who has written two books on the Middle East, Herzl’s Nightmare – one land two peoples and Arabian Plights – the future Middle East