Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Chinese premier’s visit: Ireland cannot allow beef and butter to come before human rights

Many friends in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China have disappeared into the awful system of camps. Their plight must not be forgotten as the Chinese premier visits Ireland this week

The visit of Chinese premier Li Qiang to Ireland this week once again raises the question of whether our Government’s commitment to putting human rights at the heart of our national and foreign policy is more than just empty words, or if selling beef and butter is what really matters.

A 2022 United Nations report by then UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet accused the People’s Republic of China of committing serious human rights abuses against its Uyghur population and other ethnic minority groups. It found reports of arbitrary detention, widespread torture, sexual violence, forced sterilisation of women and forced labour to be credible, and that these could amount to the “commission of international crimes, including crimes against humanity”.

The US government has accused China of committing genocide against the Uyghur people.

The horror of this touches me personally. I lived for a number of years in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region. Many friends who so enriched my life during those years have disappeared into the awful system of camps the Chinese government chillingly describes as “re-education” and “vocational training centres”.


Last month The Irish Times interviewed the Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas, who was visiting Dublin. She described what happened to her sister Gulshan Abbas, a retired medical doctor, after she first spoke publicly about what was going on in her homeland. She told how her parents-in-law, three sisters-in-law, their husbands, a brother-in-law and his wife, and 14 nieces and nephews have all disappeared into these camps..

Because of what had been done to her husband’s family, Abbas spoke publicly in the US about the events in Xinjiang. And then, on September 5th, 2018, she took part in a public talk that was posted on YouTube. Six days later “they took my own sister”.

An estimated one in 10 of the Uyghur population, as many as 1.2 million people, have been sent to these camps. The Chinese Communist Party says these people are “not sufficiently loyal” or demonstrate “ideological illness”.

The campaign continues. After disappearing in 2017, in September 2023 Rahile Dawut, one of the world’s leading experts on Uyghur folklore and an inspiration to those of us fascinated by this rich and splendid culture, was reported to have been sentenced to life in prison by Chinese authorities for “endangering state security”. Her crime was to tell a history of the region not in keeping with Chinese government propaganda.

She is among more than 300 Uyghur intellectuals known to have been detained, arrested and imprisoned since 2016.

President Michael D Higgins has devoted his career to defending human rights and to promoting intellectual freedom. When he meets Li, will he raise the issue of Dawut or those 300 intellectuals? Or the 1.2 million other Uyghurs?

There is no doubt that China is a major economic power with huge markets and potential opportunities, but we cannot place commerce ahead of fundamental human rights.

On December 10th, the Irish Government celebrated the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its preamble states that “the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

We should recall the Chinese intellectual PC Chang was one of the main authors and vice-chairman of the human rights commission that drafted the declaration.

The Irish Government acknowledges what is happening to the Uyghur people. It says it has raised the issue with the Chinese behind closed doors but does not engage in “megaphone diplomacy”. If it acknowledges what is happening to be true, how can it square that with its commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

I have lived most of my adult life in China, the Chinese people I know are fundamentally decent, kind and compassionate but the Chinese Communist Party is doing everything it can to hide its crimes from them. Our Government’s silence amounts to complicity in this.

There is a significant Uyghur population in Ireland. When we have raised the issue of these Irish citizens’ family members being targeted in China with the Irish Government, we have had no response.

The Uyghurs, though, are not powerless, they have a voice and they have a moral authority. Next week we will celebrate the launch of the Irish Uyghur Cultural Association. It aims to foster a sense of support and belonging for Uyghur people living in Ireland, and to promote, share and celebrate Uyghur culture with the broader Irish population. As the President and Taoiseach work hard to increase our exports to China we will be aiming to ensure the Uyghur voice does not disappear entirely into silence.

Dr David O’Brien is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at Jagellonian University in Krakow and co-founder of the Irish Uyghur Cultural Association.