Chinese consulate claims Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill endorsed draconian Hong Kong security laws
THE first and deputy first minister are alleged to have told a Chinese government representative they "understand and respect" Hong Kong's draconian national security laws.
Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill are said to have given the endorsement in a video call with Belfast's Chinese Consul General, according to the consulate.
The ministers also said Stormont "cherishes its friendship with China" and Northern Ireland wants to "further strengthen its cooperation with China" during the Covid-19 pandemic.
China's sweeping new security laws for Hong Kong have been internationally condemned as a brutal crackdown on human rights.
The superpower has also drawn international condemnation for the internment of an estimated one million Uighur Muslims in northwest China in so-called 're-education' camps.
Satellite images show how some of the detention centres are built in H-blocks, reminiscent of the former Maze prison.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International called on the executive to "urgently publish its note of the meeting".
Its Northern Ireland director Patrick Corrigan said: "We cannot have our highest elected representatives tacitly going along with China's egregious human rights violations, whether in Hong Kong or mainland China."
The first and deputy first minister took part in the conference call with Consul General Madame Zhang Meifang.
Details of the virtual meeting emerged in a report posted in recent weeks on the Chinese Consulate's website.
According to a translation, they discussed the pandemic and the strong cooperation between China and Northern Ireland.
Madame Zhang also spoke about Hong Kong's national security legislation, claiming it does not undermine the region's level of autonomy or its residents' freedoms.
The report added: "Foster and O'Neill thanked China for its valuable support for the fight against the epidemic in Northern Ireland.
"They said that the Northern Ireland government cherishes friendship with China, understands and respects Hong Kong's national security legislation, and sincerely wishes Hong Kong more prosperity and stability, and expressed that Northern Ireland is willing to further strengthen its cooperation with China in the epidemic.
"Mutually beneficial cooperation in the fields of prevention and control, local cooperation, economy, trade and tourism will better benefit the people of both sides."
Images posted alongside the report show a smiling Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill speaking via video call to Madame Zhang.
Others involved in the meeting included senior civil servant Andrew McCormick, according to the consulate's report.
Amnesty International's Patrick Corrigan expressed disbelief.
"The Chinese government says that Northern Ireland's political leaders have endorsed their draconian actions in Hong Kong and remained silent about human rights violations in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. Surely this cannot be true," he said.
"If this is an accurate report of the meeting, then the first and deputy first minister have let down the people of Northern Ireland and betrayed the people of Hong Kong and the Uighur community in China.
"Hong Kong is suffering a brutal crackdown on human rights. The new national security law is a license for political repression, as shown by the disqualification of pro-democracy candidates from running in upcoming elections. Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, northwest China, an estimated one million Muslim people have been interned in so-called re-education camps.
"If the first and deputy first minister did challenge these human rights abuses, given the official Chinese report, we now need clear evidence of that. The Northern Ireland Executive must urgently publish its note of the meeting.
"We cannot have our highest elected representatives tacitly going along with China's egregious human rights violations, whether in Hong Kong or mainland China."
The Executive Office was asked whether the remarks attributed to the first and deputy first minister were an accurate reflection of what happened, and to provide a copy of their notes of the meeting.
It was also asked whether Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill took the opportunity to raise any human rights concerns with China's representatives.
In a single-line response, an Executive Office spokeswoman said: "Ministers held a courtesy call with the Chinese Consul General as part of their regular communications on areas of interest to the executive."