Outgoing UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet says China has committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities in mass detention camps across its western Xinjiang Province that may be crimes against humanity.
In a long-awaited report released in the 11th hour of Bachelet’s final day on the job, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that a year-long investigation found evidence that the mostly Muslim ethnic minority groups were subjected to mass internment, forced labor, sexual abuse, family separations, and torture. The report also accused China of using vague national-security laws to clamp down on minority rights and establish “systems of arbitrary detention.”
The 48-page damning report released on August 31 did not use the word “genocide” -- a designation used by the United States and several other Western parliaments -- but Uyghur activists and rights groups say they feel validated after years of campaigning and independent research documenting detention, abuses, and disappearances in Xinjiang.
“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.”
Beijing has routinely rejected any assertions of detentions and abuses in Xinjiang and has accused Uyghur activists of lying. The report’s release comes following a series of delays and intense lobbying by Beijing to block its release -- including a last-minute push from Chinese officials at the UN -- and many victims and activists feared that the report would be suppressed and would make attempts at accountability impossible.
“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.”
Abuses In Xinjiang
The report corroborates the findings that have been made public in recent years by eyewitnesses, independent research, and leaked Chinese state documents detailing a vast internment system.
When news of the detentions began trickling out, the Chinese authorities at first denied such a detention campaign, but later shifted to saying that the camps were part of a strategy to provide basic job and language skills to bolster employment and combat radicalism.
According to the UN report, they found that a “pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention occurred” in Xinjiang’s camp system from at least 2017 to 2019. The document did not give an exact figure of the number of people detained and instead used an earlier UN estimate that ranged from tens of thousands to more than 1 million Uyghurs and other minorities interned by the Chinese.
Citing dozens of eyewitness interviews, the report detailed what it characterized as a pattern of torture and other forms of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” violations, and “credible” allegations of sexual and gender-based violence, including rape.
“Their accounts included 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 said.
Camp detainees also faced “constant hunger” and “constant surveillance” and were forced to memorize patriotic songs and other propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party, as well as being subjected to regular injections and mandated to take pills that made them drowsy. The report notes that these actions “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
“This will be a watershed moment in changing international opinion and will lay the groundwork for a meaningful response to the atrocities by UN member states and the international business community alike,” Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told RFE/RL.
With the report published, activists are now hoping it can be used to produce concrete action by corporations and governments to put greater pressure on Beijing.
A group of 60 Uyghur organizations from 20 countries called for government to take the next steps by demanding multilateral bodies be more accountable, and for sustained investigations of abuses in Xinjiang to take place. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) -- an international cross-party group of legislators -- also called for greater due diligence from corporations “to remove supply chains at risk of being tainted by forced labor in the Uyghur Region, in line with their commitments to tackle modern slavery.”
“As activists we always wish it would be stronger, but given the power of the high commissioner's office, it's a good report and baseline for governments and companies around the world to react to,” said Laura Harth, campaign director for the rights group Safeguard Defenders.
Beijing, which saw the report in advance, denied allegations of abuse and pushed back strongly.
A Chinese response to the report was accompanied by a 131-page counterreport, emphasizing the threat of terrorism and the stability that its government program of so-called “de-radicalization” and “vocational education and training centers” has brought to Xinjiang.
Beijing’s delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva also rejected the findings of the report, which it said “smeared and slandered China” and interfered in the country's internal affairs.
“This so-called ‘assessment’ is a politicized document that ignores the facts, and fully exposes the intention of the [United States], Western countries, and anti-China forces to use human rights as a political tool,” it said in a statement published on September 1.
China has always insisted that Uyghur militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state, but Beijing is accused of greatly exaggerating the threat in order to justify repression of the Uyghurs and other Muslim groups.
Following mounting international pressure and growing evidence of abuses in Xinjiang, Beijing has insisted that its internment system has been reduced in scope and instead moved towards longer imprisonments, which the report notes “strongly suggests there has been a shift towards formal incarcerations as the principal means for large-scale imprisonment and deprivation of liberty.”
The Long Road To Publishing
Bachelet's office indicated that an investigation into allegations of genocide in Xinjiang was under way over a year ago, but its publication has been delayed multiple times, leading to accusations from some rights groups that Beijing was pressuring her to bury damning findings.
Speaking to reporters in late August, she admitted that she was under “tremendous pressure to publish or not to publish” the report.
Criticism of Bachelet intensified following a May visit to China, where she made only a short trip to Xinjiang and mostly focused on high-level discussions with Chinese officials. Several Uyghur activist groups denounced her visit as whitewashing abuses and accused her of succumbing to Beijing’s expanded influence at the UN.
Rayhan Asat, an Uyghur human rights lawyer whose brother was detained in the camp system, told RFE/RL that the report has set the stage for further high-level investigations into abuses in Xinjiang and for launching a fact-finding mission to determine the whereabouts and fate of those who are still unaccounted for since being interned.
“This offers hope that this can end family separation, understand what happened to those who disappeared, and for the release of innocent people,” she said. “I hope this can be a new beginning for this crisis and a path towards some accountability.”