World

Covid-19 cases are rising in PNG with quarantine staff stretched. Daily rallies continue in Myanmar despite crackdown. Israel criticised for its failure to vaccinate Palestinians.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

China confronted over treatment of Uygurs

Demonstrators protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, last week.
Credit: Reuters

Great power rivalry

China: Britain confronted China at the United Nations this week over the mass detention of Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang, as Canada became the second country to label China’s conduct a “genocide”.

Addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday, Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, called for UN investigators to be given immediate access to the detention camps in Xinjiang.

“The situation in Xinjiang is beyond the pale,” he said.

“The reported abuses – which include torture, forced labour and forced sterilisation of women – are extreme and they are extensive. They are taking place on an industrial scale.”

China is believed to have detained more than a million Muslim Uygurs and other minorities at the camps, which it claims are vocational training centres. Former detainees and prison guards have recently given accounts to the BBC and CNN of mass rape and torture of inmates.

On Monday, Canada’s parliament approved a motion that declared that China’s conduct in Xinjiang amounted to genocide. However, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and his cabinet abstained from the vote, arguing that such condemnation should be issued in co-operation with international partners.

Canada’s move follows the Trump administration’s declaration – in its final 24 hours – that China’s repression of the Uygurs was a genocide.

The Biden administration’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, later committed to uphold the declaration.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, this week criticised other countries for launching “slanderous attacks”, claiming that the Xinjiang region had 24,000 mosques and was experiencing “social stability and sound development”. He said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights would be welcome to visit Xinjiang but gave no further details.

“There has never been so-called genocide, forced labour, or religious oppression in Xinjiang,” Wang told the UN Human Rights Council. “Such inflammatory accusations … are simply malicious and politically driven hype.”

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: A spate of locally transmitted cases of Covid-19 was recorded in Papua New Guinea this week as official figures showed the country’s levels of testing are among the lowest in the world.

As of Tuesday, the country had recorded 1111 cases and 10 deaths from the virus, including more than 130 new cases in the preceding five days.

The new cases included the country’s pandemic controller, David Manning, and two members of his family, who all tested positive last weekend. Manning warned that testing rates needed to increase, saying that only 50,000 people – or less than 1 per cent of PNG’s population – have been tested since the outbreak of the pandemic.

“I have been telling people to be tested for Covid-19,” he said. “As the controller, I had to take the test. I am glad I did.”

According to a leaked government document, PNG has been failing to ensure that all international arrivals at the airport in Port Moresby undergo proper testing checks and quarantine. The document, obtained by ABC News, said front-line workers at the airport lacked police and security support and were unable to enforce quarantine measures. It said some staff had stopped working because they had not been paid.

The country’s health minister, Jelta Wong, told ABC News he was “worried” about the quarantine system and was planning to tighten security.

“We had a case where a guy walked out of quarantine and walked into a bar and had a drink,” he said. “He was brought back to quarantine and he had to pay a fine, and he also faced the option of deportation.”

Democracy in retreat

Myanmar: Protesters have been holding daily marches across Myanmar to rally against the recent military coup, even after security forces showed they were willing to open fire at demonstrators. On Monday, hundreds of thousands of people paraded across the country, as shops and businesses took part in a general strike, just two days after police and soldiers shot at a crowd at a shipyard in Mandalay, killing two people and injuring about 30.

Despite warnings on state-run television that further protests could end in deadly violence, demonstrators have been holding rallies every day since the coup on February 1, in which the military detained the country’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The United States this week extended its sanctions to apply to additional military officers. The European Union said it also planned to impose further sanctions.

The United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said Myanmar’s military should release the detained politicians and acknowledge the results of the recent election, which was won in a landslide by the NLD.

“Stop the repression immediately,” Guterres said in a tweet. “Coups have no place in our modern world.”

Spotlight: Israel’s vaccine passports

Israel: Gyms, hotels and swimming pools have reopened in Israel after a series of Covid-19 lockdowns, but entry is permitted only to those holding “green passports” – a document that shows they have been vaccinated.

The passports, available as a paper certificate or through a health ministry app, take effect seven days after people receive a second vaccine dose and allow recipients to avoid quarantine if they travel abroad or have contact with an infected person. In addition, they can visit registered stores and other venues. Initially, the passports will expire after six months.

Israel has conducted the world’s fastest vaccine rollout and this week became the first country to have administered doses to more than half of its population of about nine million people. As of Tuesday, about 51 per cent of Israelis had received one dose and about a third had received two doses.

The rollout is offering a glimpse of how post-vaccine society may function. Ethical dilemmas have emerged over whether workplaces such as schools can discriminate against unvaccinated employees. Those with passports must continue to wear masks and practise social distancing.

As the rollout continues, Israel has faced criticism for failing to distribute vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. As of Monday, the Palestinians had received about 32,000 doses for a population of about five million after receiving some donations from Israel, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Israel has argued that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for health in the Palestinian territories.

Palestinians, along with UN officials and human rights groups, say Israel occupies the territories and is responsible for providing access to vaccines. Washington this week reportedly urged Israel to assist with vaccinations of Palestinians as a way to promote co-operation.

Early signs from the mass rollout of vaccines in Israel and Britain is that they work. Official data in Israel showed that the Pfizer vaccine is 98.9 per cent effective in preventing death two weeks after the second dose. A separate study found that even one dose significantly reduces the viral load and helps to prevent transmission. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2021 as "China confronted over treatment of Uygurs".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.