The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.N. report: China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, at a news conference in Geneva. (Pierre Albouy/Reuters)
5 min

A U.N. report on human rights abuses in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, released late Wednesday after months of unexplained delays, concludes that China’s actions “may” constitute international crimes, particularly crimes against humanity.

The report by U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet came in the final minutes of her last day on the job and ended speculation that it might never become public. The closely watched review had faced criticism from both human rights advocates, who worried that it would whitewash state-sponsored abuses, and Chinese officials, who insisted that the investigation was politically motivated and strongly opposed its release.

“The high commissioner’s damning findings explain why the Chinese government fought tooth and nail to prevent the publication of her Xinjiang report, which lays bare China’s sweeping rights abuses,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

China slams U.N. ‘farce’ on Xinjiang as Uyghur exiles praise report

Richardson called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to initiate a comprehensive investigation, with the report as its guide, into the Chinese government’s actions targeting the Uyghurs and others — “and hold those responsible to account.”

The 46-page report looked at many dimensions of a years-long campaign and found evidence that “serious human rights violations” were committed under the guise of counterterrorism and counterextremism.

“The implementation of these strategies,” it concludes, “has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights.”

The report found that mass detention in Xinjiang from 2017 to 2019 was “marked by patterns of torture.” There also were “serious indications of violations of reproductive rights through the coercive and discriminatory enforcement of family planning and birth control policies.” Accounts of sexual violence were “credible.”

Zumrat Dawut was placed in an internment camp for Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang and was forcibly sterilized, but she made it out of China. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Chinese authorities should release all individuals who have been “arbitrarily deprived of their liberty,” the report says, and help people find information about missing family members.

Bachelet visited Xinjiang, in China’s northwest, in May, attending a highly orchestrated six-day government tour that critics said did little more than provide officials with a propaganda win. At the end of the trip, Bachelet said she was unable to determine the scale of a reeducation and incarceration program directed at ethnic Uyghurs, emphasizing that the visit was “not an investigation.” Addressing activists and relatives of detained or disappeared Uyghurs that had written to her office, she said, “I have heard you.”

Beijing opposed the report’s publication, noting recently that hundreds of Chinese organizations in Xinjiang had sent letters to Bachelet’s office protesting the release of such an “unauthorized and untruthful” assessment.

U.N. human rights chief disappoints Uyghur advocates on visit to China

Despite witness accounts, public records, leaked government directives and police records, satellite imagery, and visits to the region by diplomats and journalists that have revealed the use of forced labor and the mass detentions of an estimated 1 million to 2 million residents in reeducation camps, Beijing claims its years-long campaign in Xinjiang is about fighting terrorism and alleviating poverty. It also denies or plays down evidence of children being separated from their parents, reports of repressed birthrates of Uyghur residents, and evidence that Uyghur identity and culture are being restricted.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, called on the Office of the High Commissioner to “stand on the right side of history … and reject publishing an assessment on Xinjiang based on false information and false accusations.”

For China, the timing of the report is particularly sensitive: It comes less than two months before a key political meeting for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, where Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to be given a precedent-breaking third term that will cement his position as the country’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong.

In recent years, China — a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with veto power — has expanded its leverage within the United Nations, promoting an alternative version of human rights that aligns more closely with Communist Party doctrine.

In 2018, Bachelet’s office announced that it would investigate allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang. Last September, she said she had not secured meaningful access to Xinjiang but that her office was “finalizing its assessment of the available information on allegations of serious human rights violations in that region, with a view to making it public.” She finally visited in May.

In the months since, human rights experts and advocates waited to hear more. Last week, Bachelet acknowledged that she was under “tremendous pressure to publish or not to publish” but said she would not be swayed.

“We’re trying very hard to do what I promised,” she told reporters in Geneva.

“China, with its massive surveillance and technological capability, is inherently capable of hiding the truth from the international community,” said Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur human rights advocate and lawyer, who was interviewed for the report. “That’s why I think this report is so important. It sends a message to the Chinese government that they’re not above scrutiny.”

Some have questioned the relevance of the report given existing evidence and China’s claims that reeducation centers — “vocational training centers,” it calls them — have been closed.

But rights groups say that even if the most severe parts of the campaign are over, the situation should be rigorously investigated.

“That doesn’t change the fact that the Chinese government has committed crimes against humanity for the last five years,” said Richardson of Human Rights Watch. “That does not erase what’s happened over the last five years and the urgent need for accountability.”

Added Asat, “There must be accountability to break this cycle of impunity for powerful states."

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