Our commitment to the Uyghur community
Over the past two years, China has systematically intensified oppression of the Uyghur community in the East Turkestan region (Chinese Xinjiang): At least one million people are being indefinitely detained in re-education camps without trial, as shown by the “China Cables” in November 2019.
“China is trying to suppress reality and calls these camps vocational training centres. Really, they are modern concentration camps,” says Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress. Relatives are usually left in the dark about the whereabouts of detained family members and intimidated by the fact that their behaviour has an impact on the evaluation of these family members.
Around ten million Uyghurs live in China, mostly in Xinjiang. Related to the Turks, they are Muslim by faith. After the Communists came to power in 1949, they annexed former East Turkestan, making it part of China. About 100 Uyghurs live in Switzerland.
Economic entanglement and dependence on China
When the global corona crisis began to break out in December 2019, European countries’ economic entanglement and dependence on China became very apparent. Any crises occurring in China causes a shortage of urgently required goods over here, such as respirator masks. Moreover, if other medical items, car parts or mobiles are no longer supplied by China, this has clear repercussions on everyday life – including in Switzerland.
One thing that is being forgotten, though, in the face of the corona crisis, is that economic dependence brings an additional cost in terms of human rights. According to China Files, 68 European corporations are currently operating in Xinjiang – these also include Swiss companies. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi) reports that between 2017 and 2019, over 80,000 members of the Uyghur community were taken from detention camps to other parts of China, where they have to work under strict supervision for international firms’ suppliers. According to Aspi, these factories are in the supply chains of at least 83 well-known Chinese and international brands, such as Samsung, Sony, Microsoft, Nokia, Adidas, H&M, Lacoste and Volkswagen.
Moreover, the majority of face masks used in Switzerland comes from China. It can not be ruled out whether they come from forced labour – an investigation by the New York Times revealed that numerous Chinese mask manufacturers rely on forced labour. And in a recent appeal to the global garment industry, a coalition of over 180 NGOs pointed out that one in five cotton products is most likely linked to forced labour and human rights violations in East Turkestan. This is because China is the world’s largest cotton producer, with 84 percent of its cotton coming from East Turkestan.
No “business as usual”: Switzerland must renegotiate free trade agreement
Switzerland has also intensified its economic relations with China in recent years. Now it must convey a sense of responsibility, avoid becoming complicit in China’s behaviour, and take a stronger stand vis-à-vis China in order to uphold human rights.
- In connection with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Switzerland has asked China to commit to human rights and to the protection of “ethnic minorities”, but without success. Despite this, the Swiss government has signed a letter of intent that confirms technical and economic cooperation between the two countries in the context of the BRI.
- Switzerland’s current free trade agreement with China does not include enough practical arrangements to prevent products of forced labour or of other severe human rights violations from reaching the Swiss market and being rewarded with tariff benefits.
The Society for Threatened Peoples demands that Switzerland suspend the accord on the Belt and Road Initiative, and renegotiate the free trade agreement with China.
Petition on the free trade agreement with China
In a petition, the Society for Threatened Peoples, together with the Swiss Uyghur Association and Campax, demands that Switzerland renegotiate the free trade agreement with China. The petition received over 23,000 signatures and was submitted on September 7, 2020.
Our commitment for the Tibetain community
Since Switzerland signed a free trade agreement with China, the STP and Tibet organisations have noted that China’s influence is increasing. This is also affecting the fundamental rights of Tibetans in Switzerland – who must be protected.
Tibet has been under Chinese control for over 60 years; the 1959 uprising was brutally put down and has led to countless Tibetans fleeing ever since. With around 7500 members, the Tibetan exile community living in Switzerland is the largest in Europe. In the context of the Cold War, Tibetan refugees were openly welcomed and a Tibet Bureau with a personal representative was even opened in Geneva.
In recent years, Switzerland has grown closer to China. This is clearly demonstrated by the free trade agreement between Switzerland and China, signed in 2013, which makes no mention of human rights or the situation of minorities.
China’s long arm in Switzerland
The STP and Tibet organisations in Switzerland are concerned about the Chinese government’s increasing exertion of influence – also in Switzerland. In particular, concern has been caused by the violations of the right to free expression, the right to a distinct identity, the right to freedom of movement and the right to privacy:
- Free expression: In Switzerland, it is not always possible to express an opinion on the human rights situation in Tibet. Increasingly, restrictions are being imposed in connection with demonstrations and events (e.g. Xi Jinping’s state visit in 2017).
- Right to a distinct identity: Switzerland no longer recognises Tibetan origins in identity documents and now just specifies “China” as the country of origin.
- Freedom of movement: In recent years, it has become more difficult for Tibetans to obtain travel documents, also in Switzerland. People whose applications for travel papers are refused or rejected by the Chinese authorities cannot leave Switzerland.
- Right to privacy: China’s exertion of influence and surveillance of the Tibetan diaspora in Switzerland are increasing. This is also confirmed by the Federal Intelligence Service.
What the STP is doing
The campaign “Rights for Tibetans – also in Switzerland!” is supported by the STP and its partner organisations: the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe (TYAE), the Swiss-Tibetan Friendship Association (GSTF), the Tibetan Community in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (TCSL), and the Tibetan Women’s Organisation in Switzerland (TWOS). In a report, these organisations shed light on the situation of Tibetans in Switzerland and, in a petition, they call on Switzerland to do more to protect them.
Tibetans in Switzerland
Tibetans in Switzerland are well integrated. However, their situation has worsened in recent years.
Around 145,000 Tibetans live outside Tibet, mostly in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Around 7500 people of Tibetan descent live in Switzerland, constituting the largest Tibetan exile community in Europe.
The special relationship between Switzerland and Tibet began in the 1960s, when Switzerland was the first country in all of Europe to take in Tibetan refugees. In the context of the Cold War, Tibetan refugees were openly welcomed. In 1963, the Federal Council approved the intake of a thousand refugees. In 1964, at the request of the Dalai Lama, it allowed a Tibet Bureau with a personal representative to open in Geneva.
However, Tibetan organisations and the STP believe that Switzerland has grown closer to China in recent years and that this has caused the Swiss government to now be less focused on commitment to the observance of Tibetans’ rights.
In 2020, Switzerland and China celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations between them. However, this connection with Beijing also brings considerable responsibility.
The Society for Threatened Peoples demands that Swiss politicians and authorities do the following:
1) Renegotiate the free trade agreement with China and ensure that:
- The observance of human rights, workers’ rights and minorities’ rights is reinforced in the free trade agreement.
- Binding human rights clauses are incorporated to ensure that no products obtained from forced labour or linked to other severe human rights violations reach the Swiss market.
- Disputes over issues regarding labour and employment are brought before an arbitration tribunal and robust screening mechanisms are introduced..
2) Suspend the accord on the Belt and Road Initiative, signed in April 2019. This envisages cooperation between Switzerland and China, to assist companies installing infrastructure in third countries, particularly in Central Asia.
3) Take specific steps to ensure that members of the Tibetan and Uyghur communities in Switzerland are not monitored or intimidated.
4) Proactively take a stand, internationally and vis-à-vis China, in order to uphold human rights in China, especially the rights of Tibetan and Uyghur communities.
5) Have the Federal Council officially receive His Holiness the Dalai Lama on his next visit to Switzerland.
6) Guarantee unrestricted freedom of expression in Switzerland with regard to the situation in Tibet and East Turkestan, as well as the human rights situation in China
Contact person at the STP:
Angela Mattli, Campaign Manager, Minorities and Discrimination
Tel. +41 (0) 31 939 00 03