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

A demonstrator in Istanbul protests China's treatment of Uyghurs last year. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

China lashed out Thursday at the U.N. human rights office over its release of an incriminating report that found Beijing’s crackdown on ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region involved “serious human rights violations,” including possible crimes against humanity.

Hours after the release of the long-awaited report, Liu Yuyin, spokesperson for the Chinese mission to Geneva, characterized the “so-called ‘assessment’ on Xinjiang” as a “farce” and a politically motivated attempt to smear China.

“It is completely a politicized document that disregards facts, and reveals explicitly the attempt of some Western countries and anti-China forces to use human rights as a political tool,” Liu said in a statement released by the mission.

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

But the report was welcomed by Uyghur exiles, human rights experts and foreign officials who say its findings support years of advocacy, reporting and research that has documented state-sponsored abuses against Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang, including mass detentions, forced labor, repressed birthrates, and controls on their expressions of culture and religion.

The U.N.’s assessment was published minutes before the end of U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s four-year term and after months of unexplained delays. It comes at a sensitive time for Chinese President Xi Jinping, less than two months before a pivotal congress during which he is poised to break with tradition by taking on a third term. While Xi’s hold on power does not appear to be in question, the report will add to mounting criticism of policies that have put Beijing at greater odds with the international community.

China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, reiterated his government’s opposition to the report, according to a video released Thursday by the mission. “Its purpose definitely is to undermine China’s stability and obstruct China’s development,” he said, telling Bachelet to “avoid interfering” in China’s internal affairs.

In a joint statement signed by 63 Uyghur advocacy groups, activists welcomed the report, describing it as the “most definitive assessment of the issues faced by Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples” in China.

“This is a game changer for the international response to the Uyghur crisis,” said Uyghur Human Rights Project Director Omer Kanat. “Despite the Chinese government’s strenuous denials, the U.N. has now officially recognized that horrific crimes are occurring.”

Foreign governments also welcomed the report. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said it “provides new evidence of the appalling extent of China’s efforts to silence and repress Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,”

It lays out “harrowing evidence, including first-hand accounts from victims, that shames China in the eyes of the international community, including actions that may amount to crimes against humanity,” Truss said in a statement.

The German Foreign Ministry called the U.N. report “carefully researched” and noted that it “confirms that there is cause for grave concern,” according to a statement. “We call on the Chinese government to immediately grant all people of Xinjiang their full human rights,” it said.

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said in a statement that the findings “underscore the serious human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang.”

In a tweet, he praised Bachelet, who has faced fierce criticism for her handling of the report, thanking her for “tireless efforts in defending the rights of all.”

“The role of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is central in the UN multilateral system,” he wrote.

The report, which was years in the making, was based on in-depth interviews with 40 firsthand witnesses, including 26 who had been detained in facilities in Xinjiang since 2016. The U.N. human rights office said more than a third of the interviewees had not previously spoken to researchers or the media.

Based on those interviews, the U.N. human rights office said it was “reasonable to conclude that a pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention” occurred in facilities that Chinese officials describe as free vocational training centers. These detentions occurred at least between the years of 2017 and 2019, “affecting a significant portion” of the Uyghur and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, the report concluded.

The report also pointed out that descriptions by interviewees of these centers provided evidence of “patterns of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Allegations of sexual and gender-based violence, including of rape, “also appear credible,” the report added.

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

Members of the Uyghur activist diaspora said the report helped renew their faith in the U.N. human rights body. Many had criticized the organization for not doing more to pressure China over human rights violations and questioned the point of Bachelet’s trip to Xinjiang in May, during which she was taken on a highly choreographed tour of the region.

Tahir Imin, an activist and founder of the Washington-based Uyghur Times who left Xinjiang in 2017, said he and other colleagues working on the issues celebrated the report’s release with a meal at a Uyghur restaurant in the capital. A translation of the report published on the Uyghur Times’s website prompted dozens of comments from readers expressing relief or gratitude and commending Bachelet, according to Imin.

“This report saved the reputation of the United Nations,” he said. “It was better than what I expected. I even thought it would say, ‘Okay, there are some human rights abuses, but China is doing its best to make progress.’ But the report publicly and directly says, [allegations] of torture and rape are credible.”

The U.N. human rights office called on Beijing to release all those who are arbitrarily detained and provide explanations to family members who have, for years, called for information on their relatives who disappeared in the Chinese region. The report also called on governments to “refrain from returning” Uyghurs and other members of Turkic groups to China and to provide humanitarian assistance to them.

Some researchers and activists who argue that Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang amount to genocide were disappointed that the U.N. report did not use that word. The joint letter by Uyghur organizations called on the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention to conduct an assessment and for the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry to independently examine the issue.

Still, others said the report was a boost for an advocacy campaign that has struggled to maintain momentum in the face of intensified controls on information out of Xinjiang and an ambitious propaganda campaign by Chinese officials to counter claims of human rights abuses.

Imin, who said 28 members of his extended family in Xinjiang have been sentenced to long prison terms, said exiles have struggled to maintain hope after years of campaigning failed to deliver change.

“This would boost the morale of the Uyghur movement after a long period of faintness and tiredness,” he said.

Beatriz Ríos in Brussels, Kate Brady in Berlin and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.