UN Report: “Serious Human Rights Violations” in Xinjiang May Constitute Crimes Against Humanity

With about ten minutes to midnight on her last day as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet finally released her long-overdue report on Xinjiang. The 46-page report concluded that the Chinese government has committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups that “may constitute […] crimes against humanity.” Human Rights Watch described some of the contents of Bachelet’s report:

In the report, the high commissioner details widespread abuses, including targeting of cultural and religious practices, family separation, arbitrary arrests and detention, rape, torture, and enforced disappearances, across Xinjiang. The report concludes that “[t]he extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups, pursuant to law and policy, in context of restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights enjoyed individually and collectively, may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Detainees interviewed for the report described conditions in so-called “vocational training centres” that would amount to torture or other forms of ill-treatment, including “being beaten with batons, including electric batons while strapped in a so-called “tiger chair”; being subjected to interrogation with water being poured in their faces; prolonged solitary confinement; and being forced to sit motionless on small stools for prolonged periods of time.”

The report noted that Chinese authorities continue to openly criticize victims and their relatives now living abroad for speaking about their experiences in Xinjiang, engaging in acts of intimidation, threats, and reprisals. In the words of one interviewee: “We had to sign a document to remain silent about the camp. Otherwise, we would be kept for longer and there would be punishment for the whole family.” [Source]

There was widespread uncertainty over whether Bachelet would ultimately publish the report before the end of her tenure. In her final press conference on Tuesday, she acknowledged that her office had been under “tremendous pressure to publish or not to publish.” The Chinese government had publicly called on her to withhold the report and rallied over 40 countries to sign a letter backing its call, while human rights groups and government officials beseeched her to release it. Part of the delay was due to final-hour delivery of an official response by the Chinese government, in which names and pictures of individuals had to be blacked out for privacy reasons before the document could be attached in the annex. (Some of the names are still legible, however.)

The report described the abuses as stemming from a system of antiterrorism laws “that is deeply problematic from the perspective of international human rights norms and standards,” discriminately targeting groups for religious practice. It also determined that labor schemes from the internment camps were discriminatory and coercive. This echoed the report from two weeks ago by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, who found it “reasonable to conclude” that there is forced labor in Xinjiang, some instances of which “may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity.” 

For Uyghurs around the world, the report’s release provided some relief after years of waiting for Bachelet’s final judgment of the human rights situation in Xinjiang. “It was a long-awaited recognition of the suffering of my brother and millions like him,” said Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur lawyer in Washington whose brother, Ekpar, was imprisoned in Xinjiang. In a joint statement by 63 Uyghur organizations around the world, many leading Uyghur voices described the importance of the UN document in adding momentum towards accountability:

“This UN report is extremely important. It paves the way for meaningful and tangible action by member states, UN bodies, and the business community,” said World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa. “Accountability starts now.”

“This is a game-changer for the international response to the Uyghur crisis,” said Uyghur Human Rights Project Executive Director Omer Kanat. “Despite the Chinese government’s strenuous denials, the UN has now officially recognized that horrific crimes are occurring.” 

[…] “The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has waited far too long to deliver its report. The truth of China’s atrocities has once again been documented, and there can be no shying away from the obligation to act. Stopping genocide was a foundational purpose of the UN, and it must be upheld now,” said Campaign for Uyghurs Executive Director Rushan Abbas.

‘’Now that the leading UN office on human rights has spoken, there are no more excuses for failure to hold the Chinese government accountable,” said Elfidar Iltebir, Uyghur American Association President. [Source]

While celebrating this crucial step by the UN, human rights organizations also called for more serious action by the international community, now that many of the accusations of abuses have been supported by such an authoritative body. Some activists also noted that there is still a long way to go before the hundreds of thousands of arbitrarily detained Uyghurs may be released. In a press release on Wednesday, Amnesty International General Secretary Agnès Callamard called for new investigative mechanisms within the UN to follow up on the report:

“Now that the OHCHR has finally made its findings public, it is time for the UN Human Rights Council to set up an independent international mechanism to investigate these crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations in Xinjiang.  

“All member states have a moral obligation to support proposals to discuss the report and establish an investigatory mechanism, or else be left on the wrong side of history. There must be accountability for the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity, including through the identification and eventual prosecution of those individuals suspected of responsibility. [Source]

Other international actors welcomed the UN report and highlighted its gravity. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “concerned” by the contents of the report and urged China to follow the report’s recommendations. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell stated that the report “requires urgent action” by the UN and international community. Chair of the European Parliament’s China delegation Reinhard Bütikofer stated: “The topic of the oppression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang should be raised in every official contact between European institutions and member states’ governments with the Beijing government.” Calling the report “very substantial,” the German ambassador to China stated that “[f]ighting terrorism cannot excuse #humanrights violations,” and her embassy was among those which tried to share the report on Weibo. 

The Chinese government attached to Bachelet’s report a three-page critical response, along with a 121-page document attempting to refute Bachelet’s findings. Government officials strongly criticized the report, in sharp contrast to their praise for Bachelet upon her visit to Xinjiang in May, when they declared that she was able to see the “real Xinjiang” and hoped that she would tell “the truth” to those in the West. Online, Chinese diplomats, embassies, and propaganda figures expressed their opposition in Twitter tirades. The director of European Affairs at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted that the report “is not mandated by #UNHRC; it smears and slanders #China and interferes in 🇨🇳 internal affairs; it seriously violates the purposes & principles of the🇺🇳#UN Charter.” However, two days after the report was published, the UN OHCHR’s website and report were still accessible from within China. Finbarr Bermingham from the South China Morning Post reported on the language used by Chinese officials to try to denigrate the report:

In a statement published on Thursday, Liu Yuyin, a spokesman for the Chinese mission at the UN, said the UN body report was “pure farce” and a “politicised document” plotted by anti-China forces who used human rights as a political tool to smear and slander the country.

“The so-called ‘assessment’, based on presumption of guilt, uses disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces as its main sources,” the statement said.

Liu said the report maliciously distorted China’s laws and policies as well as its counterterrorism efforts while exposing deep-rooted bias against, and ignorance of, China.

[…] At a regular press briefing on Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the report had been“planned and manufactured first hand by the US and some Western forces” and “is wholly illegal and invalid”.

[…] Wang said the UN rights office had “sunk to [becoming] the thug and accomplice of the US and the West against the vast majority of developing countries”. [Source]

Despite the slight relief from activists and fierce opposition by Beijing, Bachelet’s report received criticism from some analysts who argued that it did not go far enough. While pointing to “crimes against humanity,” the report did not comment on whether the human rights violations in Xinjiang might constitute genocide, which was the conclusion of the European Parliament and governments of the U.S., Canada, U.K., Netherlands, France, Belgium, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic. The Uyghur Tribunal made its judgment of genocide on the basis of birth prevention. As Adrian Zenz and Nathan Ruser noted, the report’s section on reproductive rights violations was comparably weak, and according to Politico, that section had been watered down during the final hours, leaving some to believe that political considerations may have interfered with the office’s original assessment.

Bachelet ended her term in controversy, stained by a “failed” visit to Xinjiang and the delayed publication of the final UN report that left many activists disappointed up until the last minute, if not to this day. Describing Bachelet’s fall from grace for The Diplomat, Mark Cogan stated that her inaction over the Chinese government’s abuses in Xinjiang would define her legacy and permanently tarnish the UN office

Likewise, Bachelet played into Chinese hands by being surprisingly attentive to Xi Jinping’s propaganda efforts, listening to him lecture her on human rights, when he said there was “no need for ‘preachers’ to boss [China] around” or “interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.” She was photographed with a copy of Xi’s new book, inappropriately titled “Xi Jinping’s Excerpts on Respecting and Protecting Human Rights.” Her planned trip, under close scrutiny by international observers, was a catastrophe that furthered China’s propaganda aims and subordinated her office to the demands of her Chinese hosts. Bachelet even used Chinese terminology, describing internment camps as educational and vocational training centers. There was little evidence to support the idea her trip was in any way independent or critical, as Bachelet readily admitted she did not visit any prison in Xinjiang where so many accused of alleged terrorism or political crimes are held. She was also not free to speak candidly with the Uyghur population. [Source]


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