Nearly two dozen countries have signed a joint letter to the United Nations calling on China to end the mass detention of Uighur people.
In the letter to the high commissioner for human rights, 22 ambassadors – including those from the UK, Germany and Japan – raised concerns about “large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang”.
It is the first concerted action on the issue at the UN Human Rights Council, although it is short of a formal statement or resolution.
Reuters quoted a diplomat as saying China’s delegation to the UN was “hopping mad” about the letter and is preparing its own response.
UN experts say around one million Uighur Muslims are being held in detention centres in the Xinjiang region, in northwest China.
China says facilities there are “vocational training centres” and they are necessary to fight terrorism and eradicate extremism.
In the past, the region has experienced violent protests and clashes with police, as well as terrorist attacks, which have cost hundreds of lives.
The governor of Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, told Sky News in March that the centres “were the same as boarding schools”.
Amnesty International last year described an “intensifying government campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups”.
The unprecedented letter also calls on China to allow experts, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “meaningful access” to the region.
“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 letter says.
It adds: “We call also on China to refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”
China’s foreign ministry said the letter “neglected the facts” and was a slander against China, an interference in its affairs and the politicisation of human rights.
“China is strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed to this,” said spokesman Geng Shuang in Beijing.
“We have already lodged stern representations with the relevant countries.”