“Crimes against humanity” may have been committed in China’s treatment of Uyghur and other Muslim minority peoples in its northwestern region of Xinjiang, according to a long-awaited report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released Wednesday.
The report, released just minutes before the end of High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s term, said the “extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups… may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
The report’s “overall assessment” finds 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-‘extremism’ strategies.”
The report also said “allegations of patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention, are credible.”
The report focuses on what it describes as “arbitrary detention and related patterns of abuse” within what China refers to as “vocational education and training centers” between 2017 and 2019.
It also reports on a “backdrop of broader 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 established VETCs as a way to counter “extremism” in the region, and has since said these centers were closed – a claim the UN office said it could not verify.
China, which had opposed the report being released, responded to the report in a 131 page document – nearly three times the length of the report itself – in which it decried the findings as “based on the disinformation and lies manufactured by anti-China forces”. .”
That response was released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in tandem with its own report after China was given advance access to the document to review and respond.
The UN assessment comes four years after a committee of UN experts called attention to “credible reports” that more than 1 million Uyghur and other Muslim minority peoples were interned in extrajudicial camps in Xinjiang for “re-education” and indoctrination.
But since that moment in August 2018, the international community had done little on the basis of those reports within the UN: Countries in the UN’s main human rights body have not agreed to any formal call for a probe, while appeals from UN experts for China to allow for rights monitoring to have been met with fierce denials of wrongdoing from Beijing and no invite for free access to come see for themselves.
That deadlock within the UN has heightened the attention and importance of the High Commissioner’s report for those people impacted and who have sought to call China to account within the international system in the hopes of effecting change on the ground.
The report will not clear away political challenges to advancing calls for the establishment of a formal UN investigation, as China holds significant sway among UN member states. But rights activists have said it should be a wake-up call for international action.
To compile its assessment, the OHCHR assessed various forms of documentation and other materials and conducted with 40 people of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicities. Twenty-six of the interviewees reported that they had either been detained or had worked 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 transcended borders, separating families and severing human contacts, while causing particular suffering to affected Uyghur, Kazakh and other predominantly Muslim minority families, exacerbated by patterns of intimidations and threats against members of the diaspora community speaking publicly about experiences in XUAR,” the report states.
The OHCHR makes several recommendations to the Chinese government, including the release of arbitrarily detained individuals and clarification of the whereabouts of missing individuals.
The OHCHR also called for urgent attention by “United Nations intergovernmental bodies and human rights system, as well as the international community more broadly.”
In its response to the document, Beijing said the report “distorts” China’s laws and policies.
“All ethnic groups, including the Uygur, are equal members of the Chinese nation,” China’s response said. “Xinjiang has taken actions to fight terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law, effectively curbing the frequent occurrences of terrorist activities. At present, 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-China forces,” adding, “the assessment is a political tool” and “a politicized document that ignores the facts.”
The UN report, which had been subject to months of delay, will likely define Bachelet’s legacy as head of the UN’s foremost rights body. Human rights groups and academic experts previously accused Bachelet of being soft on Beijing following a controversial visit to China earlier this year.
Earlier in her term, Bachelet said she sought “full access to carry out an independent assessment of the continuing reports pointing to wide patterns of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions,” but while she did not gain unfettered access in her eventual trip this past May, she has said her team evaluated whether aspects of that trip should be included in the report.
The report said while it cannot confirm the number of details in VETC facilities, a reasonable conclusion can be drawn from the available information that the number of individuals in the facilities, at least between 2017 and 2019, was “very significant, comprising a substantial proportion of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minority populations.”
This system, the report found, also came against “the backdrop of broader discrimination against members of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities” based on predominantly perceived security threats emanating from individual members of these groups.
The report was welcomed by some overseas Uyghur activists as long overdue recognition from within the UN system.
Omer Kanat, Excutive 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 strenuous denials, the UN has now officially recognized that horrific crimes are occurring,” he said in a statement.
Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on Xinjiang, said the report is “conservative” in its tone, use of data and the conclusions, which – together with its extensive citing of Beijing’s own government documents – “will make it very hard for China to counter or refute it.”
“Overall, the report is not perfect and a lot of available supporting evidence was not used. But it will provide a strong and authoritative basis going forward from here for holding Beijing accountable,” he said.
Human rights groups said the report is a powerful 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 so important for the UN system to stand up to Beijing, and to stand with victims,” said John Fisher, Global Advocacy Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“Governments should waste no time establishing an independent investigation and taking all necessary measures to advance accountability and provide Uyghurs and others the justice they are entitled,” he said.
What comes after the report remains uncertain. Even if a majority of countries within the UN Human Rights Council were to vote to establish a formal probe, there’s no mechanism to compel China to comply – and a number of countries have denied UN access in other cases. Beijing has also ignored international decisions in the past, for example dismissing an international tribunal ruling against its claims in the South China Sea.