UN experts and rights groups say China is holding about one million Uighurs and other Muslims in detention camps. China claims that Uighurs are being educated in “vocational training centres” designed to combat extremism.

The unprecedented statement was signed by the ambassadors of 22 countries including Britain, Canada and Japan.The letter cites reports of “large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang”. China was urged “to allow meaningful access to Xinjiang” for UN and independent international observers.

However, the joint letter carries less diplomatic weight than a formal statement read out at the council, or a UN resolution submitted for a vote. The decision was down to fears of political and economic retaliation from Beijing, diplomats told Reuters.