Beijing furious over damning UN rights report on Uyghurs in Xinjiang

·3-min read
AP - Ng Han Guan

China on Thursday accused the United Nations of becoming a "thug and accomplice of the US and the West" after the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a highly anticipated report warning that crimes against humanity may have taken place in the Xinjiang region.

The landmark 46-page document was published just under 15 minutes before the end of the tenure of Michelle Bachelet, who headed the High Commissioner's office until 31 August.

The paper details a string of rights violations including torture and forced labour against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region.

It brings the UN seal to allegations long made by activist groups, Western nations and the Uyghur community in exile.

The report was largely constructed on the basis of material gathered over several years, including a fact-finding mission of Bachelet and her team to the region in May this year.

However, it stopped short of calling China's actions a genocide – claims made by the United States and several Western lawmakers, leaving some activists "disappointed".

"The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups ... may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity," the report said.

It said the world must now pay "urgent attention" to the situation in Xinjiang.

'Gravest accusations'

Sabine Gagnier, of Amnesty International, told RFI the publication of the report was late, which she deemed “inexcusable” but it was of “extremely high” importance and “one of the gravest accusations made by the OHCHR until now”.

Its conclusions, she says, underscore what NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said “for years”, including that Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang “could constitute crimes against humanity”.

While the UN report does not add new elements to rights violations already alleged by NGOs and Uyghur exiles, Gagnier says they will be harder to ignore now they carry the official stamp of a high-profile UN organisation.

Firm opposition

Beijing hit back hard against the report, over a year in the making, and maintained its firm opposition to its release – sharing a more-than-100-page document from the Xinjiang provincial government defending its policies.

"The so-called critical report you mentioned is planned and manufactured firsthand by the US and some Western forces, it is wholly illegal and invalid," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing Thursday.

"The report is a hodgepodge of misinformation, and it is a political tool which serves as part of the West's strategy of using Xinjiang to control China."

Wang also slammed the UN rights office as having "sunk to becoming the thug and accomplice of the US and the West", but said the report's omission in calling China's actions genocide shows their "lies ... have fallen apart".

An article in the hardline Global Times quotes Chinese experts saying that "Bachelet's departure may be connected with the Western pressure over the Xinjiang report, which has already been hyped up and weaponized".

It added: "At a time when the West is smearing China with 'human rights issues' in Xinjiang, it is increasingly difficult to remain objective, and it is hoped that Bachelet's successor can resist the pressure."

EU welcomes report

The European Union's top diplomat on Thursday welcomed the report. EU High Representative Josep Borrell also paid tribute to Bachelet for her "leadership and tireless efforts in defending the rights of all".

Brussels has been highly critical of China's actions in Xinjiang in the past, but Borrell did not use the opportunity of the UN report to take a tougher line.