The United States on Thursday welcomed a United Nations report that said China may have committed crimes against humanity in its Xinjiang region, saying it deepened Washington’s concerns about what it calls a genocide there against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday released the report, which found China’s “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the western Chinese region may constitute crimes against humanity.
China has vigorously denied any abuses in Xinjiang and issued a 131-page response to the 48-page UN report, calling it “completely illegal and void.” Chinese officials initially denied the existence of any detention camps, but later admitted the government had set up “vocational training centres” necessary to curb what it said was terrorism, separatism and religious radicalism in Xinjiang.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the report authoritatively described China’s “appalling treatment” of ethnic and religious minority groups.
“This report deepens and reaffirms our grave concern regarding the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity that PRC government authorities are perpetrating against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,” Blinken said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said separately that the United States would work with allies and partners to demand an end to China’s abuses.
“It is critical that the full Human Rights Council membership have an opportunity to formally discuss the findings of this report as soon as possible and that the perpetrators of these atrocities are held accountable,” she said in a statement.
Uyghurs abroad welcome report’s release
Among Uyghurs who have fled overseas, there was a palpable sense of relief that the report had finally seen the light of day since many worried that it would never be published. Several saw it as a vindication of their cause and of years of advocacy work.
“The report is pretty damning, and a strong indictment on China’s crimes against humanity,” said Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur lawyer whose brother is imprisoned in Xinjiang. “It’s a really long-awaited recognition of the Uyghurs and their unimaginable suffering, coming from the world’s most authoritative voice on human rights.”
The UN findings were drawn in part from interviews with more than two dozen former detainees and others familiar with conditions at eight detention centres. They described being beaten with batons, interrogated while water was poured on their faces and forced to sit motionless on small stools for long periods.
Some said they were prevented from praying — and were made to take shifts through the night to ensure their fellow detainees were not praying or breaking other rules. Women told of being forced to perform oral sex on guards or undergo gynecological exams in front of large groups of people.
The report said that descriptions of the detentions were marked by patterns of torture and other cruel and inhumane treatment and that allegations of rape and other sexual violence appeared “credible.”
“The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … in [the] context of restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights … may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity,” the report said.
It made no mention of genocide, which some countries, including the United States, have accused China of committing in Xinjiang.
The rights office said it could not confirm estimates that a million or more people were detained in the internment camps in Xinjiang, but added it was “reasonable to conclude that a pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention occurred” at least between 2017 and 2019.
Calls for accountability
The assessment concluded that China has committed serious human rights violations under its anti-terrorism and anti-extremism policies and calls for “urgent attention” from the UN, the world community and China itself to address them.
Human Rights Watch said the report laid a solid foundation for further UN action to establish accountability for the abuses.
“Never has it been so important for the UN system to stand up to Beijing, and to stand with victims,” said John Fisher, the deputy director of global advocacy for the group.
Rahima Mahmut, U.K. director of the World Uyghur Congress, said she was relieved the report is finally out — but had no hope it would change the Chinese government’s behaviour and called on the international community to send a signal to Beijing that “business cannot be as usual.”
That the report was released was in some ways as important as its contents.
Outgoing rights chief Bachelet said she had to resist pressure both to publish and not publish. She had announced in June that the report would be released by end of her four-year term on Wednesday, triggering a swell in back-channel campaigns — including letters from civil society, civilians and governments on both sides of the issue.
Why she waited until the last minute to release the report remains unclear.
Critics had said a failure to publish the report would have been a glaring black mark on her tenure.
“The inexcusable delay in releasing this report casts a stain” on the record of the UN human rights office, said Agnes Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, “but this should not deflect from its significance.”