UN Cultural Agency Under Fire Over CCP Atrocities

By Alex Newman
Alex Newman
Alex Newman
Alex Newman is a freelance contributor to The Epoch Times. Newman is an award-winning international journalist, educator, author, and consultant who co-wrote the book “Crimes of the Educators: How Utopians Are Using Government Schools to Destroy America’s Children.” He writes for diverse publications in the United States and abroad.
March 21, 2023Updated: March 30, 2023

The U.N. agency dealing with education and culture is under fire as the heritage system is made “complicit” in ongoing atrocities perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against Uyghurs and their culture.

According to a new report by the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), the CCP’s systematic actions against Uyghur culture and heritage are part of a broader campaign of “genocide” in the region of Western China known as Xinjiang.

Amid all of that, the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), charged by the international community with helping to protect cultural heritage around the world, is remaining silent and even providing cover for the CCP, according to the report.

“In China, heritage is used as a soft tool of governance to control and manage history, and to steer people’s memories, sense of place, and identities in particular ways,” the report concludes. “When the management of heritage is used in tandem with the hard modes of governance currently in play in the Uyghur region—ones that states and international bodies have designated a form of genocide—then the heritage system is complicit in those acts of genocide.”

The UHRP and its allies around the world have asked the United Nations to speak out.

“Where is UNESCO when the Chinese government is literally destroying the identity and culture of Uyghurs?” Peter Irwin, senior program officer with UHRP, asked.

Irwin, who provided support and guidance to the authors of the report, told The Epoch Times he thought UNESCO was refusing to speak out because of the funding it receives from China.

“They should be publicly speaking about it,” he said. “They understand the place they’re in. It’s a challenging environment for them. But they should be speaking out.”

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Uyghur women work in a cloth factory in Hotan county, Xinjiang Province, China, on Apr. 27, 2019. (Azamat Imanaliev/Shutterstock)

Citing statements from the U.S. government and other sources, Irwin suggested that the cultural heritage being destroyed in China documented in the report actually represents the destruction of a people.

“Effectively, this is genocide,” he said. “If this were any other government in the world, UNESCO would be talking about it.”

UNESCO told The Epoch Times that it would be up to its member states to determine what course of action the organization takes.

Cultural Genocide?

The new report, released last month and titled “The Complicity of Heritage: Cultural Heritage and Genocide in the Uyghur Region,” details a systematic campaign of cultural destruction by the CCP of the largely Islamic minority.

Everything that gives the group its unique cultural identity—tradition, music, dance, religion, language, poetry, and more—is being targeted by the CCP as UNESCO stands by in silence, the researchers found.

These CCP attacks on Uyghur cultural heritage include the destruction of mosques and other religious sites and restrictions on the use of regional languages, according to the report. Hundreds or even thousands of intellectual and cultural leaders have been imprisoned, the UHRP added.

By UNESCO’s own standards, these actions amount to “strategic cultural cleansing,” the report states. Such behavior is often “inseparable” from—or even a precursor to—genocide, according to experts cited in the document.

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An exterior view of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on March 31, 2021. (Reuters/Piroschka van de Wouw)

“As acknowledged by the International Criminal Court, acts of dispossession and destruction of cultural heritage are often the precursor to acts of genocide,” University of London professor Rachel Harris, who co-authored the report, said.

“Attacks on cultural heritage, from sacred architecture to community practices and customs, are inseparable from direct physical attacks on human beings. They are a form of cultural warfare aimed at the elimination of a people and their identity.”

Governments and human rights organizations, including some U.N. agencies and officials, have also documented widespread CCP crimes against the Uyghur population over the past decade.

These atrocities include mass detainment in reeducation camps, torture, rape, forced labor, mass surveillance, forced sterilization, and separation of families.

Estimates suggest that more than a million Uyghurs and people of other minorities are currently detained in concentration camps across the region.

In 2021, the U.S. State Department even concluded that the CCP’s actions in the region amount to “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” Numerous other Western governments have issued similar condemnations.

The CCP, however, claims that its actions are reasonable and necessary to deal with terrorism and extremism, blasting those who speak out for allegedly interfering in China’s internal affairs.

UNESCO Silent Amid Horrors

Despite everything the international community knows, UNESCO continues to acknowledge the Chinese regime as the “protector” of Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz heritage in the region.

The U.N. agency lists a number of key items of cultural heritage in the region, while the report focuses on five in particular.

According to the report, the CCP is co-opting Uyghur heritage and using it to promote “new and revisionist understandings of history” in a way that “contributes directly to the wider project of cultural erasure.”

According to scholars cited in the report, the CCP effort to purge and replace Uyghur history with a version approved by the CCP has resulted in prison and even death sentences for those who propagate “incorrect” views of the region’s history.

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A facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Uyghurs are detained in far-western China’s Xinjiang region on June 4, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

The regime’s goal is a version of history that centers on a “pluralistic-unified” Chinese nation, and it will go to great lengths, such as destroying or hijacking cultural heritage, to achieve that vision, the report states. Countless families and communities have been forced off their ancestral lands in the process.

Many Uyghurs and outside scholars refer to the region as East Turkistan, though the CCP is seeking to promote the narrative that the peoples of the area have always been an inseparable part of China.

“This report was a response to the lack of action from UNESCO,” Irwin, the UHRP official who worked on the document, said. “We wanted to document the violations and even attacks on UNESCO-listed heritage.

“The government itself—if you have an understanding of the CCP—they are not fond of differences. They want everybody to look the same, speak the same language. They think that reduces conflict. That policy has existed for decades, but it really got much more intense starting 10 years ago when Xi Jinping came to power.”

Considering its mandate to preserve cultural heritage, UNESCO has a “responsibility” to act, Irwin continued in a phone interview. Yet it’s “totally failing to ensure that China protects this priceless intangible cultural heritage,” he said.

“The secretary-general hasn’t said a word on these Uyghur issues, either.”

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Uyghur women wait for visitors to join for a holiday meal during the Corban Festival in Turpan County, in the far western Xinjiang Province, China, on Sept. 13, 2016. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

What is happening is, in fact, a genocide, Irwin said, adding that the ongoing destruction of mosques and targeting of religious and cultural leaders is only one element.

“This is all part of a larger context of abuses and genocide,” he said, noting that no other government in the world could get away with what the CCP is doing and not be condemned by UNESCO and other U.N. agencies.

Recommendations for UNESCO and Others

Among other recommendations, the UHRP called for senior U.N. officials to urge UNESCO to provide a more effective response to the abuses.

The organization also encouraged U.N. member states to initiate actions under international agreements on culture that the CCP has signed.

Irwin suggested that U.S. policymakers be more involved in the debates at the U.N. rather than allowing the CCP to dominate.

Currently, the U.S. government is not a member of UNESCO. Following in the footsteps of President Ronald Reagan, President Donald Trump ordered a U.S. withdrawal from the organization, citing anti-Semitism, extremism, and corruption among its leadership and in its decisions.

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The logo of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is seen in Paris on Nov. 12, 2013. (Jacques Brinon/AP Photo)

“I don’t think UNESCO is fixable,” former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Kevin Moley told The Epoch Times, noting that the agency’s policymaking had “largely been taken over by the CCP and its allies.”

President Joe Biden’s administration and some of its allies in Congress were hoping to get the U.S. government involved again, The Epoch Times reported in late 2021.

But under federal laws signed by Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, the U.S. government is also banned from funding the U.N. agency over its decision to admit the “State of Palestine” as a member.

The Epoch Times reported in 2020 that multiple senior officials and analysts have expressed grave concerns about what they describe as a CCP “takeover” of the U.N. and its agencies, with Moley referring to it as “the greatest existential threat to our republic since our founding.”

But Irwin and the UHRP said that the U.S. government can still help curb the cultural destruction taking place in Xinjiang.

“Given that the U.S. government has described what is happening as genocide and crimes against humanity, there is an obligation for policymakers to follow up,” he said, calling for an “atrocity prevention task force” or some similar body to get involved.

“There should be a lot more visible public advocacy,” he said, adding that other governments should also speak out. But there are complicating factors.

Irwin argued that one of the CCP’s goals was to “pacify” the region to facilitate its “Belt and Road” trade initiative, which aims to connect China to the rest of Eurasia and beyond.

That same Belt and Road plan, along with the opportunities it brings for other governments in the region and for spreading the CCP’s influence, is among the reasons why governments—including nearby Islamic governments such as Pakistan’s—have been so reluctant to speak out about Xinjiang.

“They made it very clear that they have chosen the side of China despite what’s happening to the Islamic population in China,” Irwin said. “Trade and money are the overriding factors.”

Many of those governments have their own human rights issues, too, he added.


Irwin said there would be more work in the next few months to get state parties to the World Heritage Convention to speak up.

“UNESCO as a body is limited if they don’t get support from governments,” he continued, noting that UNESCO is not unique in failing, as member states have “an obligation” to use the mechanisms at their disposal to address this.

A spokesman for UNESCO deflected blame, pointing to member states of the international body as the decision-makers.

“UNESCO wishes to underline the importance attached to inclusion and respect for communities in the management of inscribed sites and elements, as is clearly set forth in the texts of its conventions,” the spokesman said, pointing to the World Heritage Convention and the Intangible Heritage Convention that govern these issues internationally.

“The practice and procedure is that when UNESCO receives precise and credible information about a specific element inscribed on a UNESCO list, this information is shared with the concerned member states, so as to bring both the information shared by civil society and the member states’ response—if any—to the attention of the appropriate committee.” The spokesman said it was UNESCO policy not to have comments attributed to a particular individual.

“It is then for member states of the respective committees to assess the situation and take appropriate [action].”

It isn’t the first time the CCP has come under fire for these issues. In August 2022, then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a report finding that CCP abuses against Uyghurs may constitute “crimes against humanity.”

Although governments on the U.N. Human Rights Council failed to approve a proposal to debate the issue, numerous prominent human rights organizations urged Western governments to pursue accountability for the alleged crimes perpetrated by the CCP.

Uyghurs and Muslims are among many groups that experts and human-rights monitors say are persecuted by the CCP. Other victims include practitioners of Falun Gong, Christians, and Tibetans.

The CCP’s foreign ministry didn’t respond by press time to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.

In a press conference last month, however, CCP Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang.

“The so-called ‘violation’ or ‘repression’ of human rights is the lie of the century propagated by anti-China forces and has long been debunked by facts,” he was quoted as saying in news reports.