The report, released minutes before the end of High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s term, said “the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghur members and other predominantly Muslim groups…may amount to crimes crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.
The report’s “comprehensive assessment” concludes that “serious human rights violations have been committed” in the Xinjiang region, in the context of “the Chinese government’s implementation of counter-terrorism strategies and extremism”.
The report also states that “allegations of patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse prison conditions, are credible.”
The report focuses on what it describes as “arbitrary detention and related patterns of abuse” in what China calls “vocational education and training centers” between 2017 and 2019.
It also points to a “wider context of discrimination” against members of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities “based on perceived security threats emanating from individual members of these groups.”
China has previously said it set up VETCs as a means of tackling ‘extremism’ in the region, and has since declared those centers closed – a claim the UN office said it could not. check.
China, which had opposed the release of the report, 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 misinformation and the lies fabricated by the Chinese anti-forces.”
This response was released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) alongside its own report after China had early access to the document to review and respond to it.
The UN assessment comes four years after a UN panel of experts drew attention to ‘credible reports’ that more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been interned in extrajudicial camps in Xinjiang for “re-education” and indoctrination.
But since that moment in August 2018, the international community has done little on the basis of these reports within the UN: the countries of the main UN human rights body have not accepted no formal calls for an investigation, while calls by UN experts for China to allow rights monitoring have been met with fierce denials of wrongdoing from Beijing and no invitation for access free to come and see for themselves.
This standoff within the UN has heightened the attention and importance of the High Commissioner’s report for those affected and who have sought to hold China to account within the international system in hopes of bringing changes on the ground.
The report will not eliminate political challenges to advancing calls for an official UN investigation, as China wields significant influence among UN member states. But rights campaigners said it should be a wake-up call for international action.
To compile its assessment, OHCHR assessed various forms of documentation and other materials and conducted interviews with 40 people of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicity. Twenty-six of those interviewed said they had been detained or worked in various institutions in Xinjiang.
The report accuses the Chinese government of “drastic, arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms, in violation of international norms and standards”.
“The policies and practices described in XUAR (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) have transcended borders, separating families and severing human contact, while causing particular suffering to Uyghur, Kazakh and other predominantly Muslim minority families. , exacerbated by patterns of intimidation and threats against members of the diaspora community speaking publicly about experiences in XUAR,” the report states.
OHCHR makes several recommendations to the Chinese government, including releasing those arbitrarily detained and clarifying the whereabouts of missing persons.
The OHCHR also called for the urgent attention of “inter-governmental bodies of the United Nations and the human rights system, as well as the international community at large”.
In its response to the document, Beijing said the report “misrepresents” China’s laws and policies.
“All ethnic groups, including Uyghurs, are equal members of the Chinese nation,” China’s response reads. “Xinjiang has taken measures to fight terrorism and extremism in accordance with law, effectively curbing frequent occurrences of terrorist activities. At present, Xinjiang enjoys social stability, development economy, 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 the Chinese mission to the United Nations in Geneva described the report as “a farce planned by the United States, Western countries and anti-China forces”, adding that “the assessment is a political tool”. and “a politicized document that ignores the facts.”
The UN report, which had suffered months of delay, will likely define Bachelet’s legacy as head of the UN’s top human rights body. Human rights groups and academic experts have previously accused Bachelet of being soft on Beijing following a controversial visit to China earlier this year.
Earlier in her term, Bachelet said she was seeking “full access to conduct an independent assessment of the continuing reports indicating wide patterns of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions”, but although she was not granted access unlimited during her eventual trip last May, she said her team assessed whether aspects of that trip should be included in the report.
The report states that while it cannot confirm the number of inmates in VETC facilities, a reasonable conclusion can be drawn from available information that the number of individuals in facilities, at least between 2017 and 2019, was ” very large, comprising a substantial proportion of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minority populations.”
This system, according to the report, also fits into “the context of broader discrimination against members of the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities” based on perceived security threats emanating from individual members of these groups. .
The report was welcomed by some Uyghur activists abroad as a long overdue acknowledgment within the United Nations 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 strong denials by the Chinese government, 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 conclusions, which – along with its extensive citation of Beijing’s own government documents – “will make very difficult for China to counter or refute it.”
“Overall, the report is not perfect and there is a lot of available supporting evidence that has not been used. But it will provide a solid and authoritative basis from now on to hold Beijing accountable,” he said. he declared.
Human rights groups said the report is a powerful challenge to Beijing’s repeated denial of its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and called for immediate international action to hold China accountable.
“It has never been more important for the United Nations system to stand up to Beijing and stand with the victims,” said John Fisher, deputy director of global advocacy at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
“Governments should waste no time in launching an independent investigation and taking all necessary steps to advance accountability and deliver the justice to which Uyghurs and others are entitled,” he said.
What comes after the report remains unclear. Even if a majority of countries in the UN Human Rights Council were to vote to establish a formal investigation, there is no mechanism to compel China to comply – and a number of countries have refused. access to the UN in other cases. Beijing has also ignored international rulings in the past, such as rejecting an international court ruling against its claims in the South China Sea.
Richard Roth and Caitlin Hu of CNN in New York and Nectar Gan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.