A UN report that concludes that the People’s Republic of China has committed serious human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups is a damning indictment that Ireland and the EU cannot ignore.
Yet silence is exactly what the Chinese Communist Party will use to achieve through fear, threats and intimidation.
The report released by UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on her last day in office documents “drastic, arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms, in violation international norms and standards”.
He believes that the reports of arbitrary detentions, widespread torture, sexual violence, forced sterilization of women and forced labor are credible, and that these could amount to the “commission of international crimes, including crimes against humanity”.
The high commissioner, who visited the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in May, said she was pressured not to publish the report. As shocking as this may sound, it should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed China’s workings internationally.
In February, the Chinese Embassy in Dublin objected to our elected officials meeting Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, during his visit to Leinster House.
Some TDs and senators ignored the threats and listened to him talk about how more than a million Uighurs have been imprisoned without trial and how widespread torture and rape are in these camps. He told how his mother died in such a camp in 2018 and how most of his family members disappeared.
While some TDs and senators listened, most ran a mile. Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney and officials from his ministry also refused to meet him.
Yet when it comes to meeting his Chinese counterpart, Coveney doesn’t hesitate. For the government, securing access to the Chinese market for Irish beef takes precedence over confronting Beijing over its crimes against humanity.
Some of our elected officials – MEP Mick Wallace being the most prominent – have gone further.
Wallace gave an interview to Newstalk last year in which he said reports of what was happening in Xinjiang were “grossly exaggerated”. In the same interview, he compared Uyghur testimonies of abuse to “grunts against Micheál Martin”.
When evidence of this campaign of repression began to emerge in 2017, the Chinese government denied its existence. When this evidence became overwhelming, they reversed tack by admitting the camps were real but calling them “vocational training centers.”
They were, in the words of the Chinese government, a way of dealing with the “ideological disease” of people who did not appreciate all that the Communist Party had done for them.
We have been silent as our trade with China grows, while the number of people employed here by Chinese companies linked to the Communist Party, such as Tiktok and Huawei, has increased
China has long tried to manipulate and dominate the global discourse on Xinjiang. He is engaged in a sophisticated campaign to stifle critical narratives by flooding search engines and social media with AI-generated posts that appear to support his crackdown. It also uses old-fashioned threats and cyberbullying to intimidate and silence those who criticize or question its policies or intentions.
The Uyghur community in Ireland knows only too well what these threats mean for them and their families in China.
Ireland was elected to the United Nations Security Council thanks to a campaign highlighting how human rights are at the heart of our foreign policy. Yet we sat next to the People’s Republic of China in this council and said nothing. The success of our diplomats in securing the seat must mean more than just flashy promotional videos and status. It must be more than hollow rhetoric.
We have been silent as our trade with China increases, while the number of people employed here by Chinese companies linked to the Communist Party, such as Tiktok and Huawei, has increased.
The British, French and Dutch parliaments have declared what is happening in Xinjiang to be genocide. Our silence looks more and more like guilt.
I have lived most of my adult life in China and can say with certainty that the vast majority of Chinese people are good, decent, kind and compassionate. But their government hides what it is doing from their citizens, it has such control over the media and public discourse that they cannot know it.
Yet in Ireland we know, we can see the evidence and yet our government remains silent.
The evidence of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang is now overwhelming, and it is time to speak out with the same level of commitment to human rights that we have spoken about with regard to Ukraine. We cannot pick and choose which ones to condemn based solely on our economic interests.
In this country, we know all too well the power of silence, how fear and threats cause good people to turn away. History will judge us for our silence, and in time we may be called to account for why our government put trade before people’s lives.
David O’Brien is a lecturer at the Faculty of East Asian Studies at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany. He researches and writes about ethnic identity in Xinjiang