Treatment of Uyghurs may constitute crimes against humanity, says UN human rights office

China's discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity, the UN human rights office said in a long-awaited report released Wednesday.

Calls for urgent international response over allegations of torture, other violations

A Chinese flag is seen behind a fence topped with razor wire.
A Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in China's western Xinjiang region, where ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in a network of internment camps that China has described as 'vocational education centres.' (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

China's discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity, the UN human rights office said in a long-awaited report released Wednesday.

The report calls for an urgent international response over allegations of torture and other rights violations in Beijing's campaign to root out terrorism.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet brushed aside repeated Chinese calls for her 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 has fanned a tug-of-war for diplomatic influence with the West over the rights of the region's native Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups.

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 unexpected 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 run-up to its release fuelled a debate over China's influence at the world body and epitomized the on-and-off diplomatic chill between Beijing and the West over human rights, among other sore spots.

A man in a white shirt and black pants stands in front of a crowd of adults and children.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, shown on July 14, inspects a local village in Turpan, in China's northwest Xinjiang region where his government is widely accused of oppressing predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities. (Li Xueren/Xinhua/The Associated Press)

'Patterns of torture'

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 Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim communities, between 2017 and 2019.

The report cites "patterns of torture" inside what Beijing called vocational centres, which were part of its reputed plan to boost economic development in 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 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."

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 Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minority populations."

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

Hours before the release, China's UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, said Beijing remained "firmly opposed" to the report's release.

"We haven't seen this report yet, but we are completely opposed to such a report, we do not think it will produce any good to anyone," Zhang told reporters outside the Security Council. "We have made it very clear to the high commissioner and in a number of other occasions that we are firmly opposed to such a report."

"We all know so well that the so-called Xinjiang issue is a completely fabricated lie out of political motivations, and its purpose is definitely to undermine China's stability and to obstruct China's development," he added.

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 Wednesday. 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 Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang.

A woman wearing glasses clasps her hands below her chin while sitting at a microphone.
Outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, seen during her final news conference in Geneva on Thursday. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

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

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

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.

LISTEN | Forced labour in China:
On June 21, a new labour law comes into effect in the U.S. requiring all importing businesses to prove that nothing in their supply chain is made with forced labour in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. That's where human rights organizations say more than a million Uyghurs have been detained, with estimates of hundreds of thousands forced to produce cotton, apparel and electronics for some of the world's biggest brands. We speak with two Uyghur advocates who tell us stories of their family heartache, the struggle for the truth and whether this new law can end these crimes against humanity. Featuring: Rayhan Asat, human rights and business practices lawyer. Jewher Ilham, Uyghur human rights activist, Project to Combat Forced Labor.