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China slams rebuke at U.N. over Uyghurs

China lashed back after 22 nations delivered the first international condemnation of Beijing's crackdown on more than 1 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province.

GENEVA (AN) — China lashed back on Thursday after 22 nations from the Asian Pacific region, Europe and North America delivered the first international condemnation of Beijing's crackdown on more than 1 million ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province.

The condemnation was delivered as a collective letter to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council from Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan and New Zealand, along with 17 European nations, mostly from the European Union. In the letter, the nations urged China to cease detention of the Muslim Uyghurs in detention centers.

China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing in Beijing that the crackdown was required for national security, and nations criticizing China were interfering with its sovereignty.

"In this letter, certain countries wantonly criticized and smeared China in total disregard of the truth," Geng said, according to a transcript of the briefing. "By blatantly politicizing the issue of human rights, they have grossly interfered in China's internal affairs. We deplore and resolutely oppose that."

The group of nations had asked the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, to publish the letter on its website, but did not request a resolution from Human Rights Council, which was wrapping up a three-week regular session this week.

"We call on China to uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China," the nations said in the joint letter on Monday signed by 22 Geneva-based envoys.

"We also call on China to refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uyghurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang," said the group, including Norway, Switzerland and 15 E.U. members: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.

Geng, however, called China's actions in Xinjiang a response to "severe threats of terrorism and extremism," and said the region "now enjoys social stability and unity among all ethnic groups" as a result of the mass detentions.

"People there are living a happy life with a stronger sense of fulfillment and security," he said. "They endorse the government's policies and measures wholeheartedly."

Holding powerful countries to account

China’s government also defended itself against reports of serious human rights offenses last year, rejecting concerns from U.N. experts that at least 1 million ethnic Muslim Uyghurs were being detained, re-educated and indoctrinated in Xinjiang, a semi-autonomous region of northwestern China with high desert plains and mountain ranges.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang had blamed the allegations on a smear campaign waged by “anti-China forces” and foreign media taking political aim at China’s standing. The region is rich in oil and natural gas, and borders seven other Central Asia nations.

Human rights activists and scholars have estimated that at least 1 million people are effectively imprisoned in secret “counter-extremism” internment or political “re-education” and indoctrination camps in Xinjiang.

Human Rights Watch called the statement from the 22 nations an important step towards holding Chinese authorities accountable for human rights violations.

“Twenty-two states have called China to task for its horrific treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang,” said John Fisher, the New York-based human rights organization's director in Geneva, where the Human Rights Council is based.

"The joint statement is important not only for Xinjiang’s population," he said in a statement, "but for people around the world who depend on the U.N.’s leading rights body to hold even the most powerful countries to account.”