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Do Uighur Lives Matter?

Xi’s long march through the UN

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

On April Fool’s Day, China joined an exclusive group of five nations that selects the UN’s independent human rights experts. Since then it has wasted no time making a mockery of the UN’s commitment to human rights. Not that the UN needs any help in this department. Over the years it has appointed Saudi Arabia to its women’s rights commission, Iran to its disarmament commission and Zimbabwe to its commission on sustainable development.

Still, allowing China to chair the committee appointing an expert on freedom of speech shows the organisation has lost none of its flair for black humour.  The experts must investigate arbitrary detention and government-orchestrated disappearances, matters in which no one can deny that China has first-hand experience. One will report on the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, a domain in which China’s expertise in fostering pandemics is unrivalled. But it is in seeking China’s advice on an expert on freedom of speech that the UN shows true comic genius. Having mined George Orwell’s 1984 as a user manual, Beijing has turned to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — a novel in which books are outlawed and firemen must burn any they find. With Hong Kong being brought behind the Great Firewall of China, Beijing has been reviewing the territory’s pro-democracy books with a view to banning if not burning them.

China’s choice of former head of Amnesty International (AI) Irene Khan was inspired. Before Khan arrived at AI, China complained of the organisation’s pro-Western bias. Khan put a stop to that. Shortly after starting in September 2001, she visited Australia, the first head of AI to do so in its 40-year history. She was incensed at the detention of the 530 asylum seekers and declared that Australia was in breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the course of her tenure, she castigated Australia for its violation of the human rights of Aboriginals in the Northern Territory through compulsory income management. She lumped Prime Minister John Howard and US President George W. Bush in with Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir claiming that all were leaders who thrived on ‘myopic and cowardly leadership’ using fear to advance their political agenda. She accused Australia and the US of encouraging terrorism and fuelling instability around the world by liberating Iraq from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Describing Guantanamo Bay as ‘the gulag of our times,’ Khan claimed that it was ‘entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law,’ and that its trials by military commissions made ‘a mockery of justice and due process.’


Khan was lionised as a hero of the left in Australia and rewarded with the Sydney Peace Prize but as John Podhoretz wrote in the New York Post, ‘Maybe the people who work at Amnesty International really do think that the imprisonment of 600 certain or suspected terrorists is tantamount to the imprisonment of 25 million slaves,’ but if so, it ‘proves that well-meaning people can make morality their life’s work and still be little more than moral idiots.’

Yet Khan’s key achievement at AI was to shift the organisation’s focus away from freedom of speech which, she said, meant nothing to a man who can’t read the newspaper and focus on poverty as a human rights violation, a principle that she vigorously defended when negotiating her severance package from Amnesty. Her total pay-out was well over $A1 million dollars, about 4 per cent of its budget for the year and about five years’ funding for one section in Latin America. An independent investigation found that she had negotiated little luxuries like a trebling of her household allowance and a payment to compensate her for her UK tax liabilities on the settlement which the report found to be ‘wholly inappropriate.’ Conservative MP Phillip Davies commented, ‘I am sure people making donations to Amnesty, in the belief they are alleviating poverty, never dreamed they were subsidising a fat cat pay-out.’

After her golden handshake Khan hopped back on the international human rights money-go-round with an appointment in 2011 to head the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO). Here, despite, her lopsided attacks on the US, IDLO was awarded almost $US 50 million to run a Justice Training Transition Program. One critic summed up its achievements as renting one of the largest NGO offices in Kabul. During her time at IDLO, Khan was a frequent visitor to China and had nothing but praise for its Belt and Road Initiative, which, she said, is ‘anchored in the purposes and principles of the UN.’ In her many speeches, there was no mention of the arbitrary detention of more than a million Uighur Muslims.

Do Uighur Lives Matter? Not to the 53 countries at the Human Rights Council who supported China’s new national security law in Hong Kong in a vote this month, including a multitude of Muslim nations and the Palestinian Territories, who had nothing to say about the persecution of their co-religionists. Why so shtum? Most have signed onto China’s BRI and many are renegotiating debt payments. Only 27 countries supported the UK in condemning the new law. They didn’t include the US which withdrew from the Council in 2018, with its Ambassador Nikki Haley dismissing it as ‘a protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias.’ Many who agree with Haley argue that the US can do more from within, yet it is the US that is doing more than any other nation to pressure China to stop persecuting the Uighur people. This week it added another 11 companies to its list of 37 with restricted access due to violations related to Xinjiang and it has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for aiding in human rights abuses.

In this, the US is not alone. Following Australia’s lead, Britain has joined the other Five Eyes nations in banning Huawei. Japan and South Korea are diversifying their supply chains away from China. India is retaliating economically to Chinese border aggression. Beijing’s belligerence in the South China Sea has alienated the ASEAN nations. President Xi Jinping wouldn’t admit it, but his indiscriminate aggression has been a mistake and he looks increasingly like North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, in the 2006 satire, Team America pathetically ‘ronery.’ Yet not at the UN. Khan’s appointment is just another step on China’s ‘Long March’ to reshape the organisation in its own image. Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the UN said it was created ‘not to lead mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell.’ That is an inferno that Beijing, with the acquiescence of the UN’s human rights mandarins, is doing its best to give Chinese characteristics.

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