A damning report by the United Nations said China has committed “serious human rights violations” that may amount to crimes against humanity in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
The long-awaited report was released by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet late on Wednesday night, minutes before her four-year term expired.
The assessment stopped short of designating China’s repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim communities in the region as genocide, as Washington did last July. But it affirmed findings from scholars, journalists, and independent rights groups, including evidence of large-scale arbitrary internment as well as patterns of abuse within the detention facilities.
Although cautious in tone, the assessment is significant as the UN Human Rights Office carries more authority than any other organization or governmental body to examine the issue to date, Darren Byler, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University, told VICE World News. “In this sense, it is a major vindication, for former detainees and, their family members, and confirmation that the work of hundreds of researchers and journalists is valid,” he said.
“The report makes a powerful case regarding the abuse of China’s ‘counter-terrorism law’ and associated technologies. It shows explicitly how one of the world’s broadest counter-terrorism laws was used to criminalize and deeply harm an entire population of people,” he added.
The office spoke to 40 first-hand witnesses, including 26 people whothat had been detained in what Beijing called vocational training and education centers, where they were subjected to different forms of punishment. Besides constant surveillance, beatings, starvation, and sleep deprivation, they were not allowed to pray and had to undergo “political teachings” instead.
“We were forced to sing patriotic song after patriotic song every day, as loud as possible and until it hurts, until our faces become red and our veins appeared on our face,” an interviewee said.
Almost all interviewees said they regularly received injections or pills that made them drowsy. “We received one tablet a day. It looked like aspirin. We were lined up and someone with gloves systematically checked our mouths to make sure we swallowed it,” an interviewee said.
The 46-page document also determined that allegations of sexual violence within the camps are “credible,” although it does not have enough evidence to ascertain the scale of such abuse. Some interviewees said they were forced by guards to perform oral sex during an interrogation, raped outside the dormitories, in separate rooms without cameras, or subject to invasive gynecological examinations.
According to the assessment, the repression also transcended borders, and members of the diaspora were warned against speaking out. “We had to sign a document to remain silent about the camp. Otherwise, we would be kept for longer and there would be punishment for the whole family,” a former detainee said.
The UN office called on the Chinese government to promptly release individuals “arbitrarily deprived of their liberty” and repeal all discriminatory laws and policies.
It also released a 131-page rebuttal from China, which fiercely denied any abuses in Xinjiang and said the assessment is based on “disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces.” The UN blacked out names and images of people featured in China’s response for safety and privacy reasons.
China’s delegation to the UN Human Rights Council also rejected the findings immediately after its release. “This so-called ‘assessment’ is a politicized document that ignores the facts, and fully exposes the intention of the US, Western countries and anti-China forces to use human rights as a political tool,” it wrote in a statement.
Many Uyghurs have been waiting for the report for years. The internment camps, which were part of a wider crackdown on Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, were established as early as 2017.
Despite mounting pressure on the UN to act, the release of the report was repeatedly delayed, drawing criticisms that Bachelet was caving to pressure from China and undermining the credibility of the international body. She also stirred controversy in late May for agreeing to a mission to Xinjiang that was tightly controlled by Beijing, which critics said helped whitewash China’s atrocities.
“It took years for the most prestigious institution in international human rights protection to acknowledge our very pain and voice, let alone take an action,” Arfat Erkin, an Uyghur exiled in the U.S., told VICE World News. His father, Erkin Tursun, an award-winning journalist, is serving a 20-year sentence in Xinjiang for a charge of inciting ethnic hatred.
Byler, who was among researchers interviewed for the paper, criticized the UN office for dragging its feet, despite having collected much of the evidence for more than a year.
“By withholding this report, the office did damage to the effectiveness of the global response. Their silence fostered ambiguity and, among some, created the impression that legal actions related to the Uyghur situation by individual nations were not made in good faith.”
China has long dismissed criticisms of its human rights abuses in Xinjiang by casting them as a Western plot to contain the country’s rise. However, as the report mainly draws from the Chinese government’s official documents, in addition to the testimonies, analysts say it would be much harder for China to refute its findings.
Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, called the report a “game-changer.” “Despite the Chinese government’s strenuous denials, the UN has now officially recognized that horrific crimes are occurring,” Kanat wrote in a statement.
“The burden is now on the members of the UN Human Rights Council to adopt its first critical resolution on the Chinese government’s persecution,” wrote Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch. He called on António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, to condemn the crimes.
Mehray Mezensof, an Australian Uyghur whose husband is sentenced to jail for 25 years on terrorism charges in Xinjiang, hopes the UN findings would spur the international community to action. “The impact I want this report to achieve is for more countries to step up and properly hold China accountable,” she told VICE World News. “They can no longer turn a blind eye.”
Likewise, Erkin hopes that this much-needed first step could galvanize a global response and force a change in policy on China’s part. “Every minute of inaction is prolonging the suffering of millions of people, including my family.”