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Guard towers stand on the perimeter wall of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng. Mark Schiefelbein

China denounces UN report citing possible crimes against humanity in Xinjiang

Some countries, including the United States, have accused Beijing of committing genocide in Xinjiang.

LAST UPDATE | 1 Sep 2022

CHINA HAS DENOUNCED a UN report that says the government’s arbitrary detention of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity.

Human rights groups and the Japanese government welcomed the delayed report, which had become caught up in a tug-of-war between China and others, who were critical of the hold-up and lobbying for its release.

The assessment released late on Wednesday by the UN human rights office in Geneva concluded that China has committed serious human rights violations under its anti-terrorism and anti-extremism policies and called for “urgent attention” from the UN, the world community and Beijing itself to address them.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet brushed aside Chinese calls for the office to withhold the report, which follows her own trip to Xinjiang in May and which Beijing contends is part of a western campaign to smear China’s reputation.

The report, which western diplomats and UN officials said had been all but ready for months, was published with just minutes to go in Bachelet’s four-year term.

It was not expected to break significant new ground beyond sweeping findings from independent advocacy groups and journalists who have documented concerns about human rights in Xinjiang for years.

But Bachelet’s report comes with the imprimatur of the United Nations, and the member states that make it up.

The report largely corroborates earlier reporting by researchers, advocacy groups and the news media, while carefully steering away from estimates and other findings that cannot be definitively proven.

It adds the weight of the UN to the conclusions, although China showed no sign of backing off its blanket denials and portraying the criticism as a politicised western smear campaign.

In a sternly worded protest that the UN posted with its report, Beijing’s diplomatic mission in Geneva said it firmly opposed the release of the UN assessment, which it said ignores human rights achievements in Xinjiang and the damage caused by terrorism and extremism to the population.

“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,” the protest said.

The 48-page report says “serious human rights violations” have been committed in Xinjiang under China’s policies to fight terrorism and extremism, which singled out Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim communities, between 2017 and 2019.

‘Patterns of torture’

The report cites “patterns of torture” inside what Beijing called vocational centres, which were part of its reputed plan to boost economic development in the region, and it points to “credible” allegations of torture or ill-treatment, including cases of sexual violence.

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 report’s authors say they could not confirm estimates of how many people were detained in the internment camps.

But they add that based on the evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that the number held “at least between 2017 and 2019, was very significant, comprising a substantial proportion of the Uighur and other predominantly Muslim minority populations”.

The report was drawn from interviews with former detainees at eight separate detention centres in the region.

And its authors suggest China was not always forthcoming with information, saying requests for some specific sets of information “did not receive formal response”.

Beijing has since closed many of the camps, but hundreds of thousands continue to languish in prison on vague, secret charges.

Japan was one of the first foreign governments to comment on the report. Its top government spokesperson urged China to improve transparency and human rights conditions in Xinjiang.

“Japan is highly concerned about human rights conditions in Xinjiang, and we believe that it is important that universal values such as freedom, basic human rights and rule of law are also guaranteed in China,” chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on the UN and governments to set up an independent investigation into the human rights abuses.

“Never has it been so important for the UN system to stand up to Beijing, and to stand with victims,” said John Fisher, deputy director of global advocacy for Human Rights Watch.

The UN report made no mention of genocide, which some countries, including the US, have accused China of committing in Xinjiang.

The assessment said that reports of sharp increases in arrests and lengthy prison sentences in the region strongly suggested a shift toward formal incarceration instead of the use of the camps.

The report called on China to release all individuals arbitrarily detained and to clarify the whereabouts of those who have disappeared and whose families are seeking information.

Pressure to publish

Bachelet said in recent months that she received pressure from both sides to publish – or not publish – the report and resisted it all, treading a fine line all the while noting her experience with political squeeze during her two terms as president of Chile.

In June, Bachelet said she would not seek a new term as rights chief, and promised the report would be released by her departure date on 31 August.

That led to a swell in back-channel campaigns – including letters from civil society, civilians and governments on both sides of the issue.

She hinted last week her office might miss her deadline, saying it was “trying” to release it before her exit.

Bachelet had set her sights on Xinjiang upon taking office in September 2018, but western diplomats voiced concerns in private that over her term she did not challenge China enough when other rights monitors had cited abuses against Muslim Uighurs and others in Xinjiang.

In the past five years, the Chinese government’s mass detention campaign in Xinjiang swept an estimated million Uighurs and other ethnic groups into a network of prisons and camps, which Beijing called “training centres” but former detainees described as brutal detention centres.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said the UN report lays bare “China’s sweeping rights abuse”.

She urged the 47-member Human Rights Council, whose next session is in September, to investigate the allegations and hold those responsible to account.

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