UN says China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang

September 1, 2022 - 7:38 PM
Michelle Bachelet
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends her final news conference before the end of her mandate at the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland, August 25, 2022. (Reuters/Pierre Albouy)
  • U.N. human rights office releases long-awaited report
  • Says ‘serious human rights violations have been committed’
  • China calls report ‘completely illegal and void’
  • Report comes minutes before rights chief Bachelet’s term ends

China’s “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslims in its Xinjiang region may constitute crimes against humanity, the outgoing U.N. human rights chief said in a long-awaited report on Wednesday.

U.N. 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. She visited China in May.

China has vigorously denied any abuses in Xinjiang and issued a 131-page response to the 48-page U.N. report.

The U.N. Human Rights Office said in the report that 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 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 U.N. office said on its website.

It recommended the Chinese government take prompt steps to release all those detained in training centers, prisons or detention facilities.

“There are credible indications of violations of reproductive rights through the coercive enforcement of family planning policies since 2017,” the office said.

It added that a lack of government data “makes it difficult to draw conclusions on the full extent of current enforcement of these policies and associated violations of reproductive rights.”

Rights groups accuse Beijing of abuses against Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority that numbers around 10 million in the western region of Xinjiang, including the mass use of forced labor in internment camps. The United States has accused China of genocide.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin described the report as “completely illegal and void”.

“This proves once again that the OHCHR has become a thug and accomplice of the U.S. and the West,” he said during a regular daily briefing on Thursday in Beijing, where he was asked repeatedly about the report.

‘Unhelpful politicization’

Bachelet, who is from Chile, said her report took “considerable work and review” and emerged in the final moments of her tenure because she wanted to deal with input from the Chinese government last week.

“Dialogue and engagement is about trying to build trust — incrementally — even when it seems unlikely. My own experience in Chile showed me the value of this approach,” she said. “To be perfectly honest, the politicization of these serious human rights issues by some States did not help,” she added. “They made the task more difficult, they made the engagement more difficult and they made the trust-building and the ability to really have an impact on the ground more difficult.”

Dilxat Raxit of the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization of exiled Uyghur groups, 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 characterize these extreme atrocities in China as genocide,” he told Reuters in an email.

Reuters reported last month that China had asked Bachelet to bury the report.

Bachelet, 70, plans to return to Chile to retire. No successor has been appointed yet.

Human rights activists hailed the report but said its timing undermined its impact.

“She put out the report — which was her job — but avoided the aftermath. It doesn’t show the necessary leadership on how to take this forward,” said Olaf Wientzek, director of the Geneva office of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Germany said the report confirmed that “there is cause for grave concern” about gross human rights violations.

“We call on the Chinese government to immediately grant all people in Xinjiang their full human rights. All those arbitrarily detained must be released immediately,” a German foreign ministry spokesman said, adding Berlin would discuss the consequences of the report with its EU and U.N. partners.

Reporting by Shivani Tanna and Ann Maria Shibu in Bengaluru, Emma Farge in Geneva, Michelle Nichols in New York, Michael Shields in Zurich, and Yew Lun Tian and Ryan Woo in Beijing; Editing by Chris Reese, Lincoln Feast and Raissa Kasolowsky