Australia’s foreign affairs minister has criticised the Chinese government for enforcing “repressive measures” against minorities in Xinjiang province and for eroding rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.
Marise Payne outlined a range of concerns during a speech to the UN’s human rights council, prompting Chinese diplomats to accuse Australia of “typical double standards” and a “blatant smear against China”.
The comments come amid increasing tensions in the relationship between Australia and its largest trading partner, with the government in Canberra insisting it will not hold back in expressing its values even in the face of economic pressure.
Australia’s term on the council expires this year, and Payne said her government had been “clear and consistent in raising human rights concerns”.
“More remains to be done to address these, including concerning reports of repressive measures enforced against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang,” Payne said in a recorded address to the council late on Monday, which she posted to Twitter on Tuesday.
Payne also cited “legislation related to national security on Hong Kong, which has eroded rights and freedom guaranteed to the people on Hong Kong”.
Payne also called for accountability for human rights violations in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and registered concern about the systematic violations of human rights in North Korea, the erosion of democratic institutions in Venezuela, and the horrific humanitarian toll of conflict in Yemen and Syria.
The remarks about Xinjiang and Hong Kong drew a furious response from the Chinese government.
China’s mission to the UN in Geneva hit back at what it called “groundless accusations” and urged Australia to “halt interfering in others’ internal affairs”.
A spokesperson for the mission, Liu Yuyin, said the “legitimate rights of people of all ethnic communities” were fully guaranteed in Xinjiang, while the new national security law for Hong Kong “plugs in the loopholes existing in national security legislation”.
“If Australia does care about human rights, it should address its own human rights problems in the first place, namely, guarantee the rights of refugees, migrants and Indigenous people, close its offshore migrants detention centres, and take serious measures to protect the safety of life and property of its people during the mega-blaze,” Liu said in a statement.
Those comments were amplified on Tuesday by the Global Times, a Chinese state media outlet.
On Monday, the Trump administration moved to strengthen screening of products that may have been made in Xinjiang. US Customs and Border Protection issued five notices to block the entry into the US of products “produced with state-sponsored forced labour” in Xinjiang region. They include certain hair products, apparel, cotton and computer parts.
The move covers all products tied to the Lop County No 4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Centre in Xinjiang, which the US Department of Homeland Security has described as a centre of forced labour.
To date, there has been no indication the government in Australia is set to follow suit. The Guardian has previously reported on concerns that face masks manufactured at a Chinese factory using allegedly coerced Uighur labour were being sold in Australia.
Last year, Payne called on China to end arbitrary detention after “disturbing” reports in the New York Times that internal Chinese government documents showed its mass detention of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang came from directives by Xi Jinping to “show absolutely no mercy” in the “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism”.
Payne’s latest UN speech also touched on the importance of human rights in governments’ response to the Covid-19 crisis.
She argued some countries were invoking and misusing emergency measures to undermine civil and political rights. The pandemic was also having a significant impact on women, girls, the aged, people with disabilities and others who may be in vulnerable situations, the minister said.
Payne said while she understood “the gravity of the challenges posed to the international human rights system”, Australia reiterated “its firm and enduring support for the human rights council”.
This support is a point of difference with the US, given that Donald Trump pulled the US out of the council in 2018 on the basis of “persistent, unfair bias against Israel” and the fact that countries with poor human rights records were routinely elected to the body.
Payne said Australia had focused on holding other council members to account and would also work to ensure all UN institutions were “fit for purpose, effective, transparent and most importantly accountable to member states”.