China’s discriminatory detention of Uighurs 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.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet brushed aside Chinese calls for the 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 Uighurs 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 Ms Bachelet’s four-year term.
It was not expected 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 Ms 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 epitomised the on-and-off diplomatic chill between Beijing and the West over human rights, among other sore spots.
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 Uighurs 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 the 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 Uighur 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 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,” Mr Zhang told reporters outside the Security Council.
“We have made it very clear to the high commissioner and on a number of other occasions that we are firmly opposed to such a report.”
He added: “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.”
Ms 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, Ms Bachelet said she would not seek a new term as rights chief, and promised the report would be released by her departure date on August 31.
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.
Ms 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 Uighurs and others in Xinjiang.
In the past five years, the Chinese government’s mass detention campaign in Xinjiang swept an estimated million Uighurs 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 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.
In response, China said it firmly opposed the release by the UN of its “so-called Xinjiang-related assessment".
Liu Yuyin, a spokesperon for Beijing’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations Office in Geneva, said the report is based on the assumption of guilt, uses false information, and is a farce planned by the United States, Western nations and anti-China forces.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the UN report “shames China”.
Ms Truss, who is also the frontrunner to become the next prime minister, said: "The report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights provides new evidence of the appalling extent of China's efforts to silence and repress Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.
"It includes harrowing evidence, including first-hand accounts from victims, that shames China in the eyes of the international community, including actions that may amount to crimes against humanity.
"This includes credible evidence of arbitrary and discriminatory detention, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations of reproductive rights, and the destruction of religious sites.
"UN member states must now be given the opportunity to consider the report fully."
She said the UK has already imposed sanctions on senior Chinese government officials and announced measures to prevent no new UK companies being "complicit in these violations" through supply chains.
The Foreign Secretary said the UK will "continue to act with international partners to bring about a change in China's actions, and immediately end its appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang".