Beijing denies any allegations of torture or political indoctrination, and says the camps are “vocational training centers” designed to fight terrorism and combat Islamic extremism.
In their letter, the 37 envoys commended China’s efforts in “protecting human and promoting human rights through development,” echoing a common refrain used in Chinese state media.
“The past three consecutive years has seen not a single terrorist attack in Xinjiang and people there enjoy a stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment and security,” the envoys said.
“The pro-China signatories include a rogues’ gallery of rights abusing countries that have zero credibility when it comes to human rights,” Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Pearson said it appears the letter criticizing China “touched a nerve.”
“Clearly the Chinese government is feeling so insecure that it needs to issue a statement praising itself,” she said.
‘Sensitive and concerned’
The reports, however, have been difficult to independently corroborate. Though the Chinese government has provided limited access to journalists and foreign diplomats in strictly guided tours of the facilities, access to Xinjiang is tightly controlled, amid growing surveillance and a prominent police presence.
Top UN officials including Michelle Bachelet have called for the global body to be given access to the camps to investigate allegations of human rights abuses.
James Leibold, a professor at Australia’s La Trobe University who specializes in modern Chinese history and society, said Beijing is likely seeking help from its international partners in order to bolster its arguments
“They’ve always been sensitive and concerned about how they are viewed internationally, and I think the entire Xinjiang story and the amount of press it’s gotten internationally has really disturbed policy makers in Beijing,” Leibold said.
“It’s not enough for them to say it themselves, they want to get their allies and supporters internationally to also back that claim … particularly in the Muslim world, where I think they need to make sure that the wider Islamic community doesn’t start to question what’s happening in Xinjiang, to see China as anti-Islam.”
The Thursday letter expressing concern about “credible reports of arbitrary detention … as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions” was co-signed by mostly Western and European countries.
The 37 countries who signed the letter backing China included several Muslim majority nations, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Pakistan.