Rights groups call for inquiries into Uyghur abuses in China after damning UN report
Governments around the world should establish formal independent investigations into human rights abuses in Xinjiang, victims and human rights groups have said, after the 11th-hour release of a long-awaited UN report.
The report by the UN office of the high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) was published minutes before Michelle Bachelet ended her tenure.
The Chinese government had sought to prevent its release, and rights groups were apprehensive after Bachelet’s visit to Xinjiang in May concluded with a statement that many said supported Beijing’s narrative.
But Wednesday’s report was damning. It said Chinese government authorities were committing human rights abuses against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang that could constitute crimes against humanity.
It did not mention genocide – a term used by the US and other governments to describe the situation in Xinjiang – but it said widespread allegations of torture, including forced medical procedures and sexual violence, were “credible”.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, who had hitherto refrained from criticism of China over its treatment of Uyghurs, hoped that Beijing would “take on board the recommendations” in Bachelet’s report, his spokesman said.
The report added little to the years of investigations and reports by rights groups, researchers and the media over the years, but the impact of the findings from the world’s leading human rights arbiter has prompted calls for the international community to take concrete action in the UN Human Rights Council and general assembly.
“Victims and survivors often look to the UN as this international bastion for protecting and promoting human rights all around the world,” said Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur activist and human rights lawyer. “First and foremost, I hope the OHCHR will establish a fact-finding mission and commission of inquiry, and especially monitor if the Chinese government will carry out the recommendations in the report.”
Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that if China did not act on the recommendations – which include releasing all of those arbitrarily detained and urgently clarifying the whereabouts of the missing – then the report should be formally tabled at the UN Human Rights Council and member states should take action.
“It is time to take that next step and move beyond statements of concern and actually table resolution that establishes an international investigatory mechanism that has the ability to collect evidence,” she said. “[The report] is damning, and it means that governments really need to act on it … Clearly China will fight that but countries need to try.”
The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said the US welcomed the report on China’s “abhorrent human rights treatment” of Uyghurs and other minorities, adding: “We call on China to immediately cease committing these atrocities.” She said the White House urged Beijing to allow access to independent investigators.
The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called for an urgent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to discuss the findings.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said the report provided new evidence of “the appalling extent of China’s efforts to silence and repress Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang”. She pledged that the UK government would continue to act with international partners to “bring about a change in China’s actions, and immediately end its appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang”.
Asat, whose brother is among Uyghurs missing after being detained in Xinjiang, called for the establishment of a mechanism to search for missing persons, as occurred in other jurisdictions such as Syria. “Many Uyghurs have disappeared and we don’t know what happened to them,” she said.
Bachelet had been under pressure from rights groups to release the report since it was due to be finalised late in 2021. She was also under pressure from China to not release it. “I said that I would publish it before my mandate ended and I have,” Bachelet told the Agence France-Presse news agency on Thursday. “The politicisation of these serious human rights issues by some states did not help.”
For its report the OHRC relied on the same sources as other investigators, including publicly available official documentation and open-source information as well as satellite imagery.
It interviewed 40 people “with direct and firsthand knowledge of the situation”, including 26 who said they had been detained or worked in various facilities since 2016. It requested specific information from the Chinese government in March 2021 but received no formal response.
Asat described the report as “conservative” in its assessment but sophisticated, detailed, and “giving voice to victims and their families”.
William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said the report substantiated its concerns on China’s laws, policies and statements, and would be “very hard for the government to refute”.
Beijing had been happy with Bachelet’s statements at the end of her visit to China, which it characterised as showing “full understanding of the situation”, but in its dissenting response to Wednesday’s report it complained that the findings were “entirely contradictory”.
After her press conference in May, Bachelet, who was still in China, was accused of legitimising Beijing’s narrative and uncritically accepting China’s “anti-extremism” justification for the crackdown.
But Wednesday’s report largely dismantled the doctrine. “Serious human rights violations have been committed in [Xinjiang] in the context of the government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-‘extremism’ strategies,” the report said.
It noted that vague laws and regulations blurred the lines between indicators of concern and signs of criminality, but also that within both categories were copious benign acts, such as having a beard or social media account.
The report said such “indicators” might be nothing than the manifestation of “personal choice in the practise of Islamic religious beliefs and/or legitimate expression of opinion”.
It found credible evidence of enforced birth control, which historically has been more difficult to substantiate at scale. It included interviews with women alleging forced contraception or abortions, and punishment for violations of “family planning policies”. It noted that Xinjiang’s rate of sterilisation was 243 per 100,000 inhabitants compared with a national average of 32.
The Chinese government dismissed the findings, calling the report “lies and disinformation” from anti-China forces in its formal response, and “illegal, null and void” in a subsequent press conference on Thursday.
“The report is a hodgepodge of misinformation, and it is a political tool which serves as part of the west’s strategy to use Xinjiang to control China,” said a spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, who called the OHCHR a “thug and accomplice of the US and the west”.
Beijing has maintained that it is operating its own kind of human rights vision, “which conforms to the trend of the times and suits China’s own national condition”. But China is still a signatory to the human rights treaties that formed the basis of the UN’s investigation, and as a member state it is also bound by other human rights norms.
The Chinese response was accompanied by a 121-page counter-report, emphasising the threat of terrorism and the stability that the state programme of “de-radicalisation” and “vocational education and training centres” has brought to Xinjiang.
In the past, Beijing has countered critical statements against it with statements of support signed by dozens of other, smaller countries. Pearson said she expected that to happen again but hoped this report would encourage some member states to add their support for an inquiry.
“The Human Rights Council is the premier place for accountability,” she said. “No government, no matter how powerful, should be able to avoid that.”