As It Happens·Q&A

What the UN Uyghur report means to a woman whose brother was 'disappeared'

A UN report released on Wednesday outlines the alleged abuses and torture at those camps, and says China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups may constitute crimes against humanity. 

Report details allegations of torture, says China’s treatment of Uyghurs may be a crime against humanity

A man and a woman sit side by side on a patterned couch in front of patterned curtains.
Uyghur human rights lawyer Rayhan Asat, right, with her brother Ekpar Asat, who has been jailed in China. (Submitted by Rayhan Asat)

Story Transcript

It's been six years since Rayhan Asat last saw her brother.

Ekpar Asat had just returned from a trip to the U.S. for a State Department leadership training program in April 2016 when he was "forcibly disappeared" into China's vast network of detention camps, she said.

It was only after she publicized his case in the media that the Chinese government finally showed her family a video to prove he was still alive. The last she's heard, he's serving a 15-year prison sentence on suspicions of inciting ethnic hatred. 

Her story is not unusual for members of China's Uyghur minority. Over the past five years, the Chinese government's mass detention campaign in Xinjiang has swept an estimated one million Uyghurs and other ethnic groups into prisons and camps.

At first, Beijing denied such camps even existed. Now, they call them "training centres." But former detainees described them as brutal detention centres.

A UN report released on Wednesday outlines the alleged abuses and torture at those camps, and says China's treatment of Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups may constitute crimes against humanity. 

China's UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, condemned the report ahead of its publication and said: "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."

Asat, a U.S.-based Uyghur human rights lawyer, spoke to As It Happens guest host Katie Simpson about the report. Here is part of their conversation.

The UN report that is now out, it highlights what activists like you have been saying for a very long time — that China has committed grave human rights abuses. How are you feeling now that the report is out?

I received the report with very complicated emotions.

On the one hand, I did wish the language of genocide was deployed in the report, and [that it would] clearly state that the Chinese government is, indeed, committing crimes against humanity as well as genocide. Because the report does talk about elements of genocide, including how the Chinese government [is] targeting even cultural centres and shrines and so forth, including that the relentless attacks against women's reproductive rights.

However, given the reality of ... China's economic might and as well as political power over the UN and many other multilateral institutions, I think it's still a very much damning report.

Why do you think the word "genocide" was not used?

If we look at the patterns of the Chinese government's disinformation and propaganda, being accused of genocide was deeply concerning for them. But the irony is that if you don't want to be accused of committing genocide, then don't commit those crimes. 

The UN report already believed the testimony of survivors, and offered a great detail of what's happening in these prison camps. And if I could, one of the survivors' statement: "I was not told what I was there for and how long I would be there. I was asked to confess a crime, but I didn't know what I was supposed to confess to."

A guard stands in a watchtower of Kashgar prison in China's Xinjiang region. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

You've mentioned that this is deeply emotional for you, understandably. I'm wondering if you can walk us through what it felt like as you sat down to finally read this report.

As a lawyer, I need to read this report and be able to offer my comment and so forth.

But I also wear a different hat, which is a direct family member of a victim — a sister and his best friend. So sometimes it is very hard to read about, you know, the torture or the inhumane treatment and all sorts of cruelty that my brother, and millions like him, are subjected to.

I need to read it because these are the facts that haunt me and, I hope, the rest of the world every day. And just reading through it, it was really painful just to know ... how much he's suffering there. My brother was put into solitary confinement. I try not to think about what [that entails] because when I do, that is quite paralyzing. And I need to continue my advocacy. I need to fight for him every day.

I read it with a lot of these complicated, complex emotions. But also I ended with a great deal of optimism, especially given that the report ended with a gratitude towards the victims, survivors, who told their stories and their testimony. And I think it speaks volumes for the fact that truth always shines. And what we are reading is the survivors' truth.

This report is going to put this issue [front and] centre before the United Nations Human Rights Council. What immediate actions are you advocating for right now?

I just saw the UN secretary general said that he's deeply concerned about what he has read in the report ... and he actually urged the Chinese government to follow through the recommendations of the report, one of which is that all the family members of the diaspora community and innocent people must be immediately released.

I want to seek accountability. I do wish to see that immediately following the comment from the secretary general, the UN establish a commission of inquiry and a monitorship to track what's happening. Has the Chinese government upheld its obligation under the report to really close down the camps? Has each member of the Uyghur community been released?

I want the UN to establish a missing persons mechanism, because we don't know how many people have even died in these camps. And I wish the report actually did talk about this, because this is a government with incredibly sophisticated technological capability that often hides the truth from the rest of the world. And that's why we must remain vigilant to make sure that all these people who are missing are accounted for.

And secondly, I really hope that national courts all around the world lend their courts under the theory of universal jurisdiction for the victims to seek accountability and seek redress for the harm and injury done over the years. 

A woman with long brown hair, pictured from the shoulder up via webcam. Her mouth is open mid-sentence. Behind her is an image of a man.
Rayhan Asat is seen testifying before the Canadian House of Commons in a 2020 virtual hearing. Pictured in the background is her imprisoned brother Ekpar Asat. (Parliament of Canada)

Do you really think that international pressure is going to bring about the change you want to see?

I believe so. The Chinese government acts like it doesn't care about, you know, international condemnation or criticism, but it does care deeply. You can tell from the massive amount of propaganda investment that it has engaged over the years just to present a better image of Xinjiang.

But if we don't speak up, and if we just let the Chinese government off the hook, then the Uyghur community would continue to suffer, and this crisis would enter into a new decade. 

You've been doing this work, this kind of advocacy for years. What is it that keeps you going?

The support coming from the international community. All the wonderful friends that I've made. 

One thing I know for sure is that despite China's overall economic influence, even my friends at law firms, individuals, they're appalled by China's actions. [So is the] business community. But often, it's the pursuit of profit [that] prevents them from actually being outspoken on this issue. And I hope this report would change that.

Because we cannot just, even in a free world, be afraid of the Chinese government. So I want those voices who are publicly supportive, and as well as those privately supportive, to be more forthcoming, to be louder.

If I could end on a positive note, quoting from a Jennifer Lopez song, I think all we have to do is be loud. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Shannon Higgins. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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