“The high commissioner’s damning findings explain why the Chinese government fought tooth and nail to prevent the release of his report on Xinjiang, which exposes China’s widespread rights abuses,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
Richardson called on the UN Human Rights Council to launch a comprehensive inquiry, with a report as guidance, into the Chinese government’s actions targeting Uyghurs and others, “and hold those responsible.”
The 46-page report looked at many dimensions of the years-long campaign and found evidence that “serious human rights violations” were committed under the guise of fighting terrorism and extremism.
“The implementation of these strategies,” he concludes, “has led to the reciprocal effects of strong and unjustified restrictions on many human rights.”
The report found that mass incarceration in Xinjiang between 2017 and 2019 was “marked by patterns of torture”. There were also “serious indications of violations of reproductive rights through the coercive and discriminatory enforcement of family planning and contraception policies.” Stories of sexual abuse were “credible”.
Chinese authorities should release all those who have been “arbitrarily deprived of their liberty” and help people find information about missing family members.
Bachelet visited Xinjiang in northwest China in May, part of a highly orchestrated six-day government tour that critics say did little more than offer officials a propaganda victory. At the end of the trip, Bachelet said she was unable to determine the extent of the re-education and incarceration program aimed at ethnic Uyghurs, stressing that the visit was not “research”. Addressing activists and relatives of detained or missing Uyghurs who had written to his office, he said: “I’ve heard you.”
Beijing opposed the release of the report, noting recently that hundreds of Chinese organizations in Xinjiang had sent letters to Bachelet’s office protesting the publication of such an “unauthorized and untrue” assessment.
UN human rights chief disappoints Uyghur advocates on visit to China
Despite witness statements, public records, leaked government directives and police reports, satellite images, and visits by diplomats and journalists to the region that have revealed the use of forced labor and the mass detention of an estimated 1-2 million residents in re-education camps. , Beijing says its years-long campaign in Xinjiang is aimed at fighting terrorism and alleviating poverty. It also denies or downplays evidence of children being separated from their parents, reports of repressed Uyghur birth rates, and evidence of restrictions on Uyghur identity and culture.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called on the high commissioner’s office to “stand on the right side of history and reject the publication of an assessment of Xinjiang based on false information and false accusations.”
The timing of the report is particularly sensitive for China: it comes less than two months before a key political meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, where Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to win a record-breaking third term, cementing his position as the country’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong.
In recent years, China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, has increased its influence at the UN, promoting an alternative version of human rights more in line with Communist Party doctrine.
In 2018, Bachelet’s office announced that it would investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Last September, he said he had not secured substantive access to Xinjiang, but his office was “finalizing an assessment of available information on alleged serious human rights violations in the region with a view to making it public.” He finally visited in May.
In the months since then, human rights experts and lawyers have been waiting to learn more. Last week, Bachelet admitted she was under “tremendous pressure to publish or not to publish” but said she would not be influenced.
“We are trying very hard to do what I promised,” he told reporters in Geneva.
“China, with its massive surveillance and technological capabilities, is inherently able to hide the truth from the international community,” said Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur human rights defender and lawyer interviewed for the report. “That’s why I think this report is so important. This sends a message to the Chinese government that they are not in control.
Some have questioned the relevance of the report, given the available evidence and China’s claims that retraining centers — what it calls “vocational training centers” — have been closed.
But rights groups say even if the worst parts of the campaign are over, the situation should be thoroughly investigated.
“This does not change the fact that the Chinese government has committed crimes against humanity over the past five years,” said Richardson of Human Rights Watch. “It does not erase what has happened in the last five years and the urgent need for accountability.”
“There has to be accountability to break this cycle of impunity for powerful countries,” Asat said.
Kuo reported from Taipei, Rauhala from Brussels.