Uyghur community members are urging the Albanese government not to sideline human rights in Australia’s diplomatic reset with China – and are disappointed to have failed to secure a meeting with the foreign minister, Penny Wong.
The Germany-based president of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa, is among a delegation that has visited Canberra this week for meetings with about 30 politicians from all sides of politics, including the opposition leader, Peter Dutton.
The delegation has urged Australia to join the US and several European countries in declaring that genocide is occurring in the Xinjiang region, and to use new Magnitsky-style sanctions laws against Chinese officials.
The group raised fears that speaking up against the persecution of minorities in China might be sidelined as part of efforts to restore trading ties after last week’s breakthrough meeting between Anthony Albanese and China’s president, Xi Jinping.
The president of the Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association, Ramila Chanisheff, said new targeted sanctions laws were “rightly” being used against Russian officials but she wanted to know why they were not also applied to Chinese officials.
“We unfortunately couldn’t get an audience with the foreign minister,” the Adelaide-based campaigner said.
The strategic communications lead for Amnesty International Australia and a Tibetan refugee, Kyinzom Dhongdue, said human rights should be “a non-negotiable condition” of any improvement in the diplomatic relationship.
She said the group had first requested the meeting with Wong via her office about a month ago. The delegates included advocates who had travelled from overseas and survivors of detention camps who “would have really valued the opportunity” to brief Wong directly.
“I think this was a missed opportunity for the minister to hear first-hand accounts of the survivors,” she said.
Wong’s spokesperson said the foreign minister had asked senior officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to meet the delegation on her behalf, along with a representative from her office.
“In addition, the delegation is meeting with a number of government MPs,” the spokesperson said. These Labor MPs are understood to include Peter Khalil, Kate Thwaites, Josh Wilson and Tony Sheldon.
Wong’s spokesperson said the minister had previously met some of the Australian representatives in the delegation and “looks forward to the next opportunity to hear from Uyghur Australians”.
The spokesperson said the foreign minister had “made clear the United Nations findings of serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, some of which may constitute crimes against humanity, are deeply concerning.
“Australia has consistently condemned human rights violations against the Uyghurs and other ethnic and Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and across China. The Australian government has raised its concerns at the highest levels.”
On Thursday Omar Bekali, one of the delegates described spending eight months in a camp five years ago, saying the authorities “would use horrible methods to torture us interrogate us and humiliate us”.
He said he was one of 7,000 male detainees at the camp ranging in age from 16 to 70, and during his imprisonment his weight had halved from 120kg to 60kg.
“I was a director of a tourism company, and the people who shared the cell with me were not guilty of any crimes – they were all professors, lawyers, businessmen, CEOs,” he told reporters in the Senate courtyard on Thursday.
“None of us needed to be re-educated, but they would force us to sign papers that accused us of being separatists and other charges.”
He said he wanted the Australian government and the parliament “to recognise this genocide, and to also make sure that this issue stays a priority in their trade relationship with China and that our cause, our issue is not forgotten”.
“These are not reeducation centres as it has been portrayed. These are death camps.”
Kalbinur Sidik said she was forced to teach Mandarin to detainees in men’s and women’s camps in 2017. She said the women were “tortured in various ways, including sexual abuse”.
She said she too was a victim of the policies, having been forcibly sterilised in May 2019 in an Urumqi hospital. She described herself as “one of the lucky ones” to have fled China with the help of her daughter, who lived in the Netherlands, and because she held Uzbek citizenship.
The Coalition’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, Simon Birmingham, said it was “disappointing” that Wong had not heard the delegation’s stories face-to-face.
He said the opposition had found it “sobering” to “hear directly the shocking and appalling experiences of members of the Uyghur community” and it had written to Wong offering bipartisan support for sanctions.
The Chinese government denies all accusations of human rights abuses. The previous ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, warned last year that Beijing would respond “in kind” if Canberra followed other countries in imposing sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.