Israel was among 41 countries at the Human Rights Council on Tuesday that urged China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” so independent observers can visit its western Xinjiang region, where Beijing is accused of a brutal crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities.
The decision by Jerusalem to back the measure came after pressure from US President Joe Biden’s administration, Walla news reported, marking what appeared to be a stark policy shift from Israel’s previous attempts to walk a tightrope between the two powers.
The statement, presented by Canada and backed by 41 mostly Western countries, echoed widespread concerns among human rights groups about detention centers in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities have been held.
“We urge China to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including the High Commissioner,” Canadian ambassador Leslie Norton said, referring to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Norton cited “credible reports” that over 1 million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang — some facing torture and other “inhuman” treatment — and that Uyghurs and others face disproportionate surveillance and restrictions on their culture.
China denies mistreating the Uyghurs, once a clear majority in their ancestral homeland until the state helped waves of ethnic Han Chinese migrate there. Beijing insists it is simply running vocational training centers designed to counter extremism.
According to the Walla report, citing Israeli and US officials, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid decided to accede to a request from the US State Department to back the measure, after a long debate in the Foreign Ministry about possible fallout from the move.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Hayat confirmed to Walla that Israel had supported the measure. However, Israel, which views China as one of its most important trading partners, did not put out a public statement announcing or explaining its backing for the UNHCR call, in an apparent bid to keep a low profile and avoid angering Beijing.
The report said Chinese officials pressed Israel not to support the move and issued a protest afterward.
Under the leadership of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel shied away from criticizing China over Xinjiang, and some of its most awkward exchanges with former US president Donald Trump’s administration were regarding infrastructure deals with China opposed by Washington.
Israel’s new administration has sought close ties with the Biden administration, which shielded Israel at the UN Security Council during the war with Gaza in May, drawing fire from Beijing.
Among the other signatories to the statement were Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States.
Bachelet’s office has been trying since the start of her tenure in 2018 to arrange a visit to Xinjiang and she said Monday she hoped to carry one out by year’s end.
China has denied the charges.
The statement from Norton also called for an end to “the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities,” and also expressed concerns about human rights in Hong Kong and Tibet.
Israel has generally been dismissive of the UN Human Rights Council, which has obsessively targeted Israel for investigations, while generally ignoring widespread abuses in other countries.
Last month, for the first time ever, the body voted to create an open-ended international investigation into Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. China was one of the countries that supported the move.
China hits back
Aware that the statement was coming, China had responded before it was even delivered.
Beijing’s representative read out a statement on behalf of a group of countries “deeply concerned about serious human rights violations against the indigenous people in Canada”.
Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela were among the co-signatories, according to the United Nations.
“Historically, Canada robbed the indigenous people of their land, killed them, and eradicated their culture,” the statement said.
It referenced the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in western Canada — one of many boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate Canada’s indigenous peoples.
“We call for a thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against the indigenous people, especially children,” the statement said.
The representative of Belarus read another joint statement on behalf of 64 countries, supporting China and stressing that Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet were Chinese internal affairs.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada had acknowledged and was seeking to make amends for wronging its indigenous peoples.
“In Canada, we had a truth and reconciliation commission,” he told journalists. “Where is China’s truth and reconciliation commission. Where is their truth?
“The journey of reconciliation is a long one, but it is a journey we are on,” he said. “China is not recognizing even that there is a problem.
“That is a pretty fundamental difference and that is why Canadians and people from around the world are speaking up for people like the Uyghurs who find themselves voiceless, faced with a government that will not recognize what’s happening to them.”