Xinjiang report: UN report finds China may have committed ‘crimes against humanity’

The report, released just minutes before the end of High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s term, said the “scale of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … could constitute international crimes, in particular particular crimes against humanity.”

The report’s “overall assessment” concludes that “serious human rights violations have been committed” in the Xinjiang region, within the context of the Chinese government’s “application of counter-terrorism and counter-terrorism strategies”.

The report also said that “accusations of patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and unfavorable detention conditions, are credible.”

The report focuses on what it describes as “arbitrary detention and related patterns of abuse” within what China calls “vocational education and training centers” between 2017 and 2019.

It also reports on a “background of wider discrimination” against members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities “based on perceived security threats emanating from individual members of these groups.”

China has previously said it had instituted VETCs as a way to counter “extremism” in the region, and has since said these centers were closed — a claim the UN agency said it could not verify.

China, which opposed the report’s publication, responded to the report in a 131-page document — nearly three times the length of the report itself — denouncing the findings as “based on misinformation and lies spread by anti-Chinese troops.”

That response was released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) along with its own report after China was given advance access to the document to review and respond.

The UN’s assessment comes four years after a committee of UN experts drew attention to “credible reports” that more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were interned in extrajudicial camps in Xinjiang for “re-education” and indoctrination.

But since then in August 2018, the international community had done little within the UN based on those reports: countries in the UN’s main human rights body have refused a formal call for a probe, while calls by UN experts for China to rights monitoring have been met with vehement denials of wrongdoing by Beijing and no invitation for free entry to see for yourself.

That standoff within the UN has increased the attention and importance of the High Commissioner’s report to those affected who have sought to hold China accountable within the international system in hopes of bringing about change on the ground.

The report will not solve the political challenges of advancing calls for a formal UN investigation, as China has significant influence among UN member states. But human rights activists have said it should be a wake-up call for international action.

Long awaited report

To compile its assessment, the OHCHR reviewed various forms of documentation and other materials and conducted interviews with 40 people of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicity. Twenty-six of those interviewed reported being either detained or working in various facilities in Xinjiang.

The report accuses the Chinese government of “far-reaching, arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms, in violation of international norms and standards”.

“The described policies and practices in XUAR (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) have crossed borders, separated families and severed human contacts, while the affected Uyghur, Kazakh and other predominantly Muslim minority families have caused particular suffering, exacerbated by patterns of intimidation and threats against members of the diaspora community who speak publicly about experiences in XUAR,” the report states.

The OHCHR makes several recommendations to the Chinese government, including the release of arbitrarily detained persons and clarification of the whereabouts of missing persons.

The OHCHR also called for urgent attention from “United Nations intergovernmental agencies and the human rights system, as well as the international community at large.”

Commenting on the document, Beijing said the report “distorts” China’s laws and policies.

“All ethnic groups, including the Uyghurs, are equal members of the Chinese nation,” the Chinese response said. “Xinjiang has taken measures to combat terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law, effectively reducing the frequent occurrence of terrorist activities. Currently, Xinjiang enjoys social stability, economic development, cultural prosperity and religious harmony. People of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are living a happy life in peace and contentment.”

A separate statement from China’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva described the report as “a farce planned by the US, Western countries and anti-Chinese forces”, adding that “the assessment is a political tool” and “a politicized document that ignores the facts.”

The UN report, which has been delayed for months, is likely to define Bachelet’s legacy as head of the UN’s main human rights body. Human rights groups and academic experts have previously accused Bachelet of being soft on Beijing after a controversial visit to China earlier this year.

Earlier in her tenure, Bachelet said she sought “full access to conduct an independent review of the ongoing reports pointing to broad patterns of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions,” but while she was denied free access during her eventual journey May, she has said her team has been evaluating whether aspects of that journey should be included in the report.

The report said that while it cannot confirm the number of detainees in VETC facilities, a reasonable conclusion can be drawn from the information available that the number of persons in the facilities, at least between 2017 and 2019, “was very significant, with a significant portion of the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities.”

This system, the report found, also went against “the backdrop of wider discrimination against members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities” based on perceived security threats posed by individual members of these groups.

What’s next

The report was welcomed by some overseas Uyghur activists as a long-awaited recognition from the UN system.

Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, called the report a “game-changer for the international response to the Uyghur crisis”.

“Despite the Chinese government’s strong denials, the UN has now officially recognized that horrific crimes are taking place,” he said in a statement.

Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on Xinjiang, said the report is “conservative” in its tone, use of data and conclusions, which – along with extensive citing of Beijing’s own government documents – “will make it very difficult for China to counter or refute.”

“Overall, the report isn’t perfect and it hasn’t used much available supporting evidence. But it will provide a strong and authoritative foundation from here on out to hold Beijing accountable,” he said.

Human rights groups said the report is a strong challenge to Beijing’s repeated denial of its human rights violations in Xinjiang, and called for immediate international action to hold China accountable.

“Never has it been more important for the UN system to stand up to Beijing and stand with the victims,” ​​John Fisher, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director of global advocacy, said in a statement.

“Governments should not waste time setting up an independent investigation and taking whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable and give Uighurs and others the justice they deserve,” he said.

What comes after the report remains uncertain. Even if a majority of countries within the UN Human Rights Council voted to open a formal investigation, there is no mechanism to force China to comply – and a number of countries have denied the UN entry in other cases. Beijing has also ignored international decisions in the past, for example by rejecting a ruling by an international tribunal against its claims in the South China Sea.

CNN’s Richard Roth and Caitlin Hu in New York and Nectar Gan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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