China’s discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity, the outgoing UN human rights chief said in a long-awaited report on Wednesday, which cited “serious” rights violations and patterns of torture in recent years.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who has faced criticism from some diplomats and rights groups for being too soft on China, released the report just minutes before her four-year term ended. Bachelet brushed aside multiple Chinese calls for her office to withhold the report, which follows her own much-criticised trip to Xinjiang in May. Beijing contends the report is part of a Western campaign to smear China’s reputation.
The report largely corroborates earlier reporting by advocacy groups and others and injects UN heft behind the outrage that victims and their families have expressed about China’s policies in Xinjiang.
Abuses Alleged in the Report
- The UN report says “serious human rights violations” have been committed in Xinjiang under China’s policies to fight terrorism and extremism, which singled out Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim communities, between 2017 and 2019
- It cites “patterns of torture” inside what Beijing called vocational training centers, which were part of its reputed plan to boost economic development in region
- The report points to “credible” allegations of torture or ill-treatment, including cases of sexual violence. “Allegations of patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention, are credible, as are allegations of individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence,” the report said
- Above all, perhaps, the report warns that the “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of such groups in Xinjiang, through moves that stripped them of “fundamental rights … may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity"
- The document said that reports of sharp increases in arrests and lengthy prison sentences in the region strongly suggested a shift toward formal incarceration as the principal means for large-scale imprisonment and deprivation of liberty — instead of the use of the “vocational training centers" once touted by Beijing
- “This is of particular concern given the vague and capacious definitions of terrorism, ‘extremism’ and public security related offenses under domestic criminal law,” the report said, saying it could lead to lengthy sentences, “including for minor offenses or for engaging in conduct protected by international human rights law”
Behind the Scenes
The report was drawn in part from interviews with former detainees and others familiar with conditions at eight detention centres. Its authors suggest China was not always forthcoming with information, saying requests for some specific sets of information “did not receive formal response.”
The rights office said it could not confirm estimates of how many people were detained in the internment camps in Xinjiang, but added it was “reasonable to conclude that a pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention occurred" at least between 2017 and 2019.
According to investigations by researchers and journalists, the Chinese government’s mass detention campaign in Xinjiang swept an estimated million or more Uyghurs and other ethnic groups into a network of prisons and camps over the past five years.
Beijing has closed many of the camps, but hundreds of thousands continue to languish in prison on vague, secret charges.
What the Report Leaves Out
The 49-page report makes no reference to genocide: one of the key allegations made by China’s critics, including the United States and lawmakers in other Western countries.
Dilxat Raxit of the World Uyghur Congress, a group based abroad, said the report confirmed “solid evidence of atrocities" against Uyghurs, but wished it had gone further. “I regret that the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights did not characterise these extreme atrocities in China as genocide," Reuters quoted him as saying.
Human Rights Watch also questioned the timing of the report, minutes close to the exit of Bachelet, who plans to return to Chile to retire.
“Frankly to issue the report as she’s walking out the door minimizes the report," Kenneth Roth at Human Rights Watch told Reuters, before it was released. “By issuing and running she is giving up, she’s not doing anything with it, (she is) just kind of dropping it into the bin and leaving the office."
Still, Human Rights Watch described the report as ground-breaking.
The report has called on China to release all individuals arbitrarily detained and to clarify the whereabouts of individuals who have disappeared and whose families are seeking information about them.
China shot back, saying the UN rights office ignored human rights “achievements” made together by “people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.”
“Based on the disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces and out of presumption of guilt, the so-called ‘assessment’ distorts China’s laws, wantonly smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs,” read a letter from China’s diplomatic mission in Geneva issued in response to the UN report.
China released a 122-page report titled “Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism in Xinjiang: Truth and Facts” that defended its record and was distributed by the UN with its assessment.
With inputs from agencies