Nov 17, 2020

Empire-Building in Asia: the Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact on Minorities and Indigenous Communities

On 17 November 2020, the UNPO held an online event to discuss the negative repercussions of China’s growing influence in Asia for unrepresented peoples. Taking place in parallel to the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, the webinar "Empire-Building in Asia: the Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact on Minorities and Indigenous Communities” brought together participants from around the world, including policy-makers from the United States and European Union, as well as UN officials and UNPO members. The fruitful discussion laid the ground for the next steps of the UNPO project in Asia, which aims at mainstreaming the debate around the Belt and Road Initiative from a human-centered approach and to consolidate a pan-Asian coalition of peoples affected by China's expansionism in client states.  

The event built on the session held at the UNPO’s XV General Assembly devoted to UNPO members in the Asia-Pacific region, which discussed how the Chinese Communist Party is exporting repressive policies also beyond its borders. In this context, the UNPO XV General Assembly adopted a resolution supporting these peoples fundamental rights and freedom of speech, conscience and religion. 

Opening the event, the UNPO General Secretary Ralph Bunche commented on the recent election held by the government of Pakistan in Gilgit-Baltistan, which signaled yet another step in the unilateral annexation of the disputed territory as an official province of Pakistan, in direct contravention of UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir. In this context, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor “skirts around Afghanistan, splits Kashmir apart and creates an insecure environment in which the human rights of all those in its path -- from the Uyghurs, to the Sindhis, to the Baloch -- are repeatedly and systemically violated”, he added. 

Vice President of the European Parliament, Fabio Massimo Castaldo spoke about his work as an MEP in the context of China's growing economic and political influence in European countries. Mr Castaldo made links to human rights in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan with the overall discussion about GSP+ and the need to ensure that any trade deal is tied to due diligence. In his speech, the Vice President of the EP made reference to the UNPO Report a Tale of Three Ports and how it has had an impact in the European Union, by expanding the focus on the trade and business and human rights discussions.

The United States Commissioner for International Freedom of Religion, Nury Turkel took the floor to contextualize the current genocidal policies of the Chinese Communist Party within Beijing's broader geo-strategic interests. Linking the persecution of the Uyghurs to  neo-colonialism in South Asia, Mr Turkel reinforced the importance of Xinjiang for the CCP as a vital route to China’s market in Eurasia and natural resources. “The Uyghurs might sound like another human rights crisis, it may sound like something that is not related to you particularly. [...] [But] you can no longer ignore this. As long as China is promoting its digital dictatorship, their digital authoritarianism [...], its corrupt influence campaign. as long as they continue to threaten national rules, norms, and the international system,  as long as they continue to invade privacy,  not only in our homeland but in the world, then this will become everybody’s issue”, he concluded.

Dr Ariell Ahearn, from the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, shared her findings about the impact of BRI for minority groups in Central Asia in light of China's expansion and entrenchment of state power. In this context, Dr Ahearn explained how China's expansion of access to rural areas through infrastructure is causing displacement and resettling in the name of development.  She highlighted how BRI is particularly active in active conflict zones, in disputed territories and in areas that struggle with water scarcity. Among the key consequences for minority groups, Dr Ahearn reinforced the loss of land and traditional livelihoods, the limited to no access to courts or legal protections for those affected, and the multiple forms of conflict and dispossession that are emerging as the BRI unfolds. 

Head of Policy and Research of the UNPO, Fernado Burgés took the floor to present the report A Tale of Three Ports: The Impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on Unrepresented Peoples in Pakistan and China and how the idea for such a project was conceived by the UNPO team. He highlighted key trends for minority groups in light of growing Chinese influence in fragile regions such as Pakistan, among them the increased militarization of the area, forced demographic change in light of the massive influx of Chinese workforce and the denial of participation in the decision-making process for the BRI in foreign lands. 

Following the presentations, the floor was opened to UNPO members representing the Khmer Krom, Hmong, Tibetans, West Papuans and Sindhi to share their views on the impacts of the Chinese-led economic corridors in their homelands. Although the reality of each of these countries differ in many ways, it was possible to observe throughout the debate a pattern of oppression against unrepresented people along each corridor, both inside and outside of China. In this regard, a project that initially looked exclusively at the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor now expands to analyse networks of oppression under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.  


Watch the recording of the webinar here.