UHRP Submission on UNOCT Call for Input on UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy


January 2, 2020

The following is a submission made by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) in response to a call for input by the UN Office on Counter Terrorism for civil society feedback on UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

Question 1: What activities did you carry out in 2019 that contributed to the implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, including possible activities in collaboration with national authorities on victims of terrorism?

In 2019, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) carried out activities that contributed to stated goals of the UN Counter-terrorism Strategy, particularly those in Pillars 1 and 4. In 2019 the human rights crisis in East Turkestan (called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by the Chinese authorities) continued with no sign of improvement.  The Chinese government claims that its policies—including mass internment, forced labor, and child separation—are counter-terrorism measures. However, it is clear to the UHRP and many other international observers that these policies actually constitute massive human rights violations. UHRP is dedicated to reporting on these human rights abuses against the Uyghur people and to advocating on their behalf, including at forums such as the UN.  

Pillar 1 of the Strategy emphasizes the importance of promoting dialogue, tolerance and understanding among cultures and peoples. UHRP seeks to foster understanding by producing content in the Chinese language and has a dedicated staff member responsible for conducting outreach to Chinese speakers, seeking to fill a gap in the availability of factual material presenting a Uyghur perspective in the Chinese language. Because Chinese government policies make free and open dialogue between the Uyghur and Han Chinese communities impossible within the borders of China, this kind of activity can only take place outside of the country.

As an organization dedicated to the protection of human rights, UHRP’s activities are also directly relevant to addressing many of the measures laid out in Pillar 4 of the Strategy. Since its founding in 2004, UHRP has sought to bring to light human rights abuses that run counter to human rights law, refugee law, and international humanitarian law, including making efforts to advocate for the non-refoulment of Uyghurs to China. In numerous reports, press releases, and other publications, UHRP has called on the Chinese government to meet its obligations under international law as well as its own constitution.  UHRP has also continued to call for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as relevant Special Rapporteurs, to be allowed to access East Turkestan.

UHRP’s human rights documentation work touches on numerous points made in the measures undertaken to address conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, including the importance of ethnic and religious tolerance and mutual respect. UHRP’s public advocacy efforts seek to engage a wide range of audiences, including in different nations and faith communities. UHRP has also reported on the economic marginalization which has been a longstanding source of Uyghur grievance against the state, and on the of many of the Chinese government’s counterproductive policies undertaken in the name of development and poverty alleviation, including forced and coerced labor and the eradication of the Uyghur language from public life. UHRP has recently documented the systematic persecution of Uyghur scholars by the Chinese government, representing the lack of the rule of law and ethnic and religious discrimination by the Chinese government, as well as an attack on Uyghur cultural rights.

Question 2: How do you see the contribution(s) of civil society in general and of your organization in particular to the implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy?

Uyghurs who have attempted to create civil society spaces within the People’s Republic of China have faced harsh retaliation. The case of recent Sakharov Prize awardee Ilham Tohti, who in 2014 received a life sentence on charges of “separatism” for his work in creating online platforms for Uyghur, Tibetan, and Han Chinese citizens to discuss issues affecting “minority” life in China, exemplifies this retaliation. The inability for Chinese citizens to form true civil-society organizations and freely conduct work on the ground in China thus severely hampers their ability to contribute to the implementation of the Global Counter-terrorism Strategy. This is particularly true for Uyghur citizens, who have faced much harsher repression of their rights to free speech and assembly than other citizens of China for decades, and who are currently experiencing a crackdown that rises to the level of crimes against humanity, perversely carried out by the Chinese government in the name of “counter-terrorism.” 

Uyghur groups operating outside of China, such as UHRP are thus the only civil-society organizations capable of contributing to the Strategy in any meaningful way. Since 2004, UHRP has worked to raise awareness of the human rights abuses that underlie tensions between the Uyghur and Han Chinese populations in East Turkestan. Greater freedom for the public in China to access information about the situation and for Uyghurs to freely express themselves is necessary before the Strategy’s stated goals of peaceful resolution of conflicts and promotion of mutual respect between cultures can be achieved. Until the Chinese state allows space for civil society to grow within the Uyghur Region and elsewhere, the responsibility for implementing these goals of the Strategy will continue to lie with diaspora organizations such as UHRP. 

Question 3: How do you assess progress made in the implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy since 2006, and specifically since its last review by the General Assembly in 2018?

UHRP sees the progress made in the implementation of the Strategy since 2006 as unsatisfactory. We hold the Chinese government and its policies responsible. China’s policies do not meet the standards laid out in the 2018 General Assembly Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review, including not complying with “their obligations under international law, including the Charter, in particular the purposes and principles thereof, and relevant international conventions and protocols, in particular human rights law, refugee law and international humanitarian law.” The Chinese government has labeled peaceful dissidents terrorists and retaliated against their family members, and is instituting collective punishment against the Uyghur population.  The Chinese government rejects any notion of a collective or objective definition of human rights; therefore, the international community cannot consider it a credible partner in the “protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism” framework. Moreover, as a member of the Security Council, China is using its power to re-shape UN and other international norms on counter-terrorism. 

Since the 2018 review, the Undersecretary-General of the UN Counter-Terrorism Office is the only major UN official who has visited the Uyghur Region.  The Undersecretary only issued a brief press release on the meetings, allowing the Chinese Foreign Ministry to frame the Chinese government’s policies as legitimate counter-terrorism activities, stating that China and the UN have reached a “broad consensus” on the international counter-terrorism situation and UN-China cooperation. This statement has undermined the credibility of the Office of Counterterrorism. 

UHRP applauds the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raising concerns and asking for meaningful access to the Uyghur Region, and for UN Special Rapporteurs recently expressing alarm about the situation of Tashpolat Tiyip. However, despite the UN General Secretary stating that he raised concerns with Chinese officials during his April 2019 visit to Beijing, no meaningful access has been granted. 

Question 4: What are your suggestions for the future implementation of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in terms of issues requiring additional attention and efforts, as well as new and emerging challenges?

The Chinese government’s policies in East Turkestan, which it is presenting on the international stage as a model of a new counter-terrorism strategy, present a major emerging challenge to the Global Counter-terrorism Strategy, particularly to measures under Pillars 1 and 4. Instead of “promot[ing] a culture of peace, justice and human development, ethnic, national and religious tolerance,” China has conflated any expression of Uyghur identity with a “separatist” threat. It is thus attempting to eliminate Uyghur language, faith, and identity from the public sphere and to prevent their intergenerational transmission in a campaign of forced assimilation amounting to cultural genocide. Chinese policies will set a dangerous precedent if left unaddressed, giving carte blanche to other authoritarian governments to develop similar policies, raising overall levels of repression and violence around the world. If China continues unopposed, other governments are likely to conclude that instituting apartheid-like police states, carrying out the mass detention of citizens, and perpetuating information blackouts are the best ways to address “counter-terrorism” and to “resolve” intercommunal conflicts.

If the UN is serious about successfully implementing the Strategy, it should do more to ensure that the human rights framework of the Strategy is not an afterthought. Specifically, it should ensure that the Special Rapporteur (SR) on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism is allowed to visit the region.  The SR should investigate accusations of human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of counter-terrorism and issue a report on whether Chinese government counter-terrorism policies meet international standards of best practices.  The SR for Freedom of Religion, Racism, and Racial Discrimination; the SR for Cultural Rights; and the High Commissioner for Human Rights should also demand visits to the region, after which they should issue relevant reports. 

Question 5: What are your recommendations for the United Nations system and the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism in particular to support Member States in implementing the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy by Member States, both in terms of method of work and thematic focus?

In order to ensure the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Global Counter-terrorism Strategy, the UN must work with Member States to guarantee that measures protecting human rights and the rule of law are not an afterthought in any implementation of the Strategy.  The 2018 assessment stated that the UN plays an important role in “capacity building.” The UN must ensure that any such capacity-building efforts do not ignore human rights standards and that nations which do not meet the standards do not take a lead in global counter-terrorism policy-making. 

UN Office of Counter-terrorism officials who visit China or otherwise engage with the Chinese government must also be transparent in reporting on their discussions and/or agreements with that government. Visits by UN Counter-Terrorism officials to Beijing or the Uyghur Region will be valuable if they result in the Chinese government being held to account for the human rights abuses that have resulted from its “counter-terrorism” practices. Condemnation of these abuses and the Chinese government’s attempts to obfuscate them are needed given its claims that its policies could present an effective model for other nations to adopt.

The UN presents itself as a resource for best practices in counter-terrorism, but the Chinese government does not carry out practices recommended in the Digest of Jurisprudence of the United Nations and Regional Organizations on the Protection of Human Rights While Countering Terrorism. If the Chinese government takes issue with commonly accepted best practices, its officials should clearly articulate why and on what grounds. Activities and common efforts between the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism and governments of states accused of human rights abuses in the name of counter-terrorism should involve the UN Commission on Human Rights to ensure that human rights protection is not sidelined and that international standards are maintained in any UN initiatives.