Detainees in a Xinjiang Re-education Camp listening to “de-radicalization” talks last year

Last week was very important in the fight for exposing to the world the atrocities of the transformation through education camps, where the Chinese Communist party detains three millions Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim minorities in the western province of Xinjiang.

The week started with a letter by 22 countries to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, denouncing the mass detention and the atrocities in the camps. The list of signatories is available: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The United States did not sign, as they have walked out of the Human Rights Council for unrelated reasons.

Bitter Winter, the magazine of which I am editor, commends these brave countries, but notices that, contrary to some statements, joining the Belt and Road initiative often comes with a political price tag.

Italy and Greece, who are both part of Belt and Road, did not join their traditional European Union partners in signing the letter. Switzerland recently joined Belt and Road too, but its strong human rights traditions prevailed and, laudably, it did sign. Notable for its absence is also South Korea, a country with a significant number of Chinese refugees escaping religious persecution.

And diplomatic sources told Bitter Winter they would have expected Turkey to support the Uyghurs victims of persecution – but, on the other hand, China is working hard towards better relations with the Erdogan government.

On July 12, some of the worst human rights violators in the world joined other friends and clients of China in signing a shameful and scandalous letter from 37 countries to the same Human Rights Council, praising alleged and non-existing “remarkable achievements” of China in the field of human rights, and claiming that detaining Uyghurs and other Muslims in the camps is necessary in order to fight “separatism” and “terrorism.”

Some countries probably understand that signing this letter means being remembered for years to come as part of an axis of shame. Chinese sources did not disclose the full list, noting that Russia was the first signatory and mentioning “Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Cuba, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Nigeria, Angola, Togo, Tajikistan, Philippines, Belarus and a number of other countries,” which in all likelihood asked not to be mentioned. Bitter Winter is in a position to confirm that Zimbabwe, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Venezuela, Syria and Myanmar also signed.

Three important political considerations may be derived from the week’s events.

First, there is an axis of shame of countries that try to violate human rights with impunity, led by China and Russia, and including North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. Muslim-majority countries that have a very bad human right record have joined this axis, regarding as more important impunity for their human rights violations than protection of fellow Muslims persecuted in China. The same applies to countries such as Myanmar, Belarus, and the Philippines, also under heavy international criticism for serious violations of human rights.

Second, Belt and Road and economic ties (Portugal, another EU country that did not sign the letter against China, started issuing the so called “panda bonds” in renminbi, as Italy also did last week) effectively paralyze countries normally supporting human rights causes from denouncing CCP atrocities.

Third, the role of civil societies and NGOs, and of publications like Bitter Winter, becomes even more crucial in supporting the governments still willing to denounce the CCP’s fake news.

Bitter Winter was crucial in proving through photographs and exclusive videos that the transformation through education camps are not “vocational schools” but jails. Without this support, the axis of shame may prevail.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, established by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale. This article has been republished from Bitter Winter. 

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new...