UN terrorism chief criticized for trip to China's Xinjiang region

Statement did not mention detained Uyghur

By Ben Westcott, CNN
Rick Shine/CNN

The United Nations Building in New York City

NEW YORK - United Nations counter terrorism chief Vladimir Ivanovich Voronkov has come under heavy criticism from the United States and human rights groups over his recent trip to China's repressive Xinjiang region.

Voronkov finished a three-day trip to the region on June 15, and issued a statement in which he said he met with local officials in Urumqi and "briefed on the implementation of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy."

There was no mention in Voronkov's press release of the estimated two million Muslim majority Uyghur who, according to the US State Department, have been held in mass detention centers in the far western region.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres raised the issue of Xinjiang with President Xi Jinping during a trip to China in April though the details of their conversation weren't made public.

Quoting a statement from China's foreign ministry, state media reported that local officials and Voronkov had reached a "broad consensus" during his trip, suggesting the UN was supportive of its counter-terrorism efforts.

Activists and former detainees have described mass camps in Xinjiang where inmates live in jail-like conditions and receive repetitive lessons in Chinese propaganda.

The Chinese government says the "vocational" camps are intended to combat Islamic extremism, and state-run media reports there have been "no major terrorist attacks" in Xinjiang since the campaign began.

In a statement Monday, Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson accused Voronkov of failing to condemn the abuses in Xinjiang's "political education" camps.

"Voronkov's departure statement conveys no concern about Beijing's abuses of Uyghurs and makes no reference to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet's request for unrestricted access to the region," she said.

"It didn't even challenge China's narrative that the problems in Xinjiang are ones of terrorism, rather than human rights abuses." Richardson said the UN had empowered Beijing, "at the cost of Uyghurs' human rights."

In a phone conversation Friday, US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan conveyed his "deep concerns" over Voronkov's trip to UN head Guterres.

"The Deputy Secretary expressed that such a visit is highly inappropriate in view of the unprecedented repression campaign underway in Xinjiang against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement on June 14.

Sullivan said that as long as Beijing continued to paint its repression of Uyghur as an anti-radicalization exercise, the presence of the UN's top counter terrorism chief lent "credence to these false claims."

The US statement said it called for "unmonitored and unhindered access" to the Xinjiang camps by UN officials.

At a press conference Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Sullivan's concerns were "extremely absurd" and described Voronkov's visit as a success.

"(The US) has been spreading rumors on China's Xinjiang affairs to smear the Chinese government's policy and measures concerning Xinjiang and interfere in China's internal affairs ... Such attempts are only futile," Lu said.

Lu added that journalists and foreign officials had been invited into the Xinjiang camps and many of them had "spoken highly" of the Chinese government's measures.

Not everyone has been convinced, however.

In a statement in February, Turkey's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy called the camps a "great shame for humanity."

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