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  • Amisha Kumar

Japan’s Resolution on Human Rights and the Condition of Uyghur Peoples in China

Since 2014, the Uyghurs, a Turkish ethnic group native to Xinjiang, China, have faced a steady stream of human rights violations. Over one million Uyghurs are held in mass detention camps, where the Chinese government retains control over their religious, social, cultural, and economic lives. Government authorities have also implemented oppressive policies to curtail religious extremism, with laws banning drinking and smoking, owning a prayer rug, and growing beards. Cameras have also been installed in the homes of private citizens. Furthermore, Uyghur women have faced forced-sterilization as a means of controlling the overall Uyghur population.

Detention camp in Xinjiang. Photo credits: AP News

Forming the Resolution

The international community has attempted to gather more details on the crisis and determine the best course of action for the situation in Xinjiang. Joining this effort, the Japanese Parliament has adopted the Resolution Regarding the Serious Human Rights Situation in Xinjiang Uighur and Other Areas as of February 1, 2022. The resolution states clearly that the Japanese government should, with support from the international community, monitor the human rights situation in China and employ extensive measures to help the victims of human rights violations.

The lack of direct action on the Uyghur crisis makes Japan's resolution all the more significant. The U.N has been relatively ineffective in its handling of the conflict. Back in 2019, a group of 22 member states, including Japan, submitted a letter to the United Nations Human Right Council (UNHRC), asking the People's Republic of China to maintain its international commitments and "refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uyghurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang." Then in October 2020, another joint statement was submitted by 39 countries, including Japan, demanding China to respect minority rights. In response to the 2020 joint statement, China garnered the support of 45 countries to defend its policies and override the requests of the joint statement. Thus, the U.N’s weak response can, at least in part, be attributed to Beijing's permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). There, they are allowed to veto resolutions and block collective action geared towards ending Chinese human rights violations. With their seat on the UNSC, Beijing has been able to successfully undermine the UNHRC and its efforts to curtail China’s human rights abuses towards the Uyghur peoples.

China’s power in the U.N has forced many countries to operate independently; Japan is one of these countries. Its recently published Resolution addresses the "serious human rights conditions" in Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong. The Resolution acknowledges “infringement of freedom of religion and forced incarceration,” however, it did not mention the specific violations in each area. The Resolution was a collective proposal from the Liberal Democratic Party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), Komeito, and the Democratic Party for the People, with additional backing from the Japanese Communist Party.

Japanese Parliament. Photo credits: Reuters

Resolution from The House of Representatives, Japan

The specific language of the Resolution states, "The Government of Japan should, with this understanding, first gather information in order to ascertain the full scope of this serious human rights situation….At the same time, the government should, in cooperation with the international community, monitor the serious human rights situation and employ comprehensive measures to help those people in need."

The Resolution explains that Japan does have a right to intervene in China’s affairs when it concerns matters of human rights. As the document emphasizes, "human rights are of universal value, issues associated with them are matters of a legitimate concern for the global community; they are not confined to the internal affairs of a country.”

However, the Resolution's lack of specific commitment reflects Japan's hesitancy to directly confront China. Negotiations among the document’s co-authors about the language used ended in the decision not to call out China by name and take a softer tone overall. For example, they used human rights conditions instead of human rights violations and dropped "criticizing" from the Resolution's title. The changes were in light of demands made by the Liberal Democratic Party's junior partner, Komeito, who has worked extensively on maintaining Japan's diplomatic ties with China. Thus, the Resolution and its coy wording also reflect the lengths Japanese politicians have gone to preserve their relationship with China. It begs the question of whether political and economic pragmatism will outweigh moral impetus to resolve the issue of human rights. Furthermore, considering Japan’s ties with Chinese trade, many have wondered what motivated Japan to act out in the first place?

At least one of the driving forces behind the Resolution seemed to be Japan’s intent on strengthening its relations with the West. The legislatures of the United States, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Netherlands, Canada, France, Belgium, and the Czech Republic have all adopted their own resolutions calling Chinese attacks on the Uyghurs a violation of human rights and ethnic genocide. Japan's Resolution reads as an attempt to mimic this course of policy. Doing so, the Japanese government hopes to ease public pressure for more decisive action on the Uyghur crisis while simultaneously cultivating a greater allyship with Western Europe. According to Erkin Ekrem, vice president of (Germany-based) World Uyghur Congress, "the resolution shows that Japan stands with its U.S. and European allies and acts in tandem with them…It also shows that Japan sees human rights as universal values." Thus, one could make the argument that Japan’s motive to cultivate a stronger partnership with the West on the issue of human rights with Western nations outweighed the risks of hindering diplomatic relations with China.

China's response: "Gross Interference."

In response to Japan's Resolution, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated that the Japanese politicians who put together the Resolution lacked regard for the "norms of state-to-state interaction" and their relations [China-Japan]. Lijian asserted, "the so-called resolution about human rights adopted by Japan's House of Representatives is extremely vile in nature, as it disregards facts and truth, maliciously denigrates China's human rights conditions, gravely violates international law and basic norms governing international relations, and grossly interferes in China's internal affairs."

Lijian went on to emphasize that the resolution infringes on China's national sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity; hence any external remark on the situation isn't "allowed." He also tried to undercut Japan's authority to speak on human rights concerns by bringing up Japan's human rights record. Lijian pointed the finger right back, saying their Japanese counterparts committed "numerous crimes during the wars of aggression it waged in the past.” He argued that Japan’s “deplorable track record in human rights” gives it no legitimacy to speak to China from the moral high ground.

Takeaways of the Resolution

While it is hard to say whether the resolution, lacking strong and direct language or specific commitment of action, will help alleviate the pain China has inflicted upon the Uyghurs, it does help draw greater attention to the crisis. Still, Japan’s latest action seems more focused on establishing stronger alliances with European nations and building the image of a democratically conscious country. However, as the condition of the Uyghur people continues to worsen, Japanese leaders will have to eventually decide whether they are willing to fully embrace such an image.


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