UN report slams China for 'torture and sexual violence' in Xinjiang

·4-min read

A new United Nations human rights report has slammed China for serious human rights abuses in its western Xinjiang region, targeting native Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups.

The report, which Western diplomats and UN officials said had been all but ready for months, was published late Wednesday evening with just minutes to go in the four-year term of the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

In her report, Bachelet called on the international community to act urgently on allegations of torture and sexual violence in Xinjiang, which the organisation considers "credible."

"Allegations of recurrent torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and poor detention conditions, are credible, as are individual allegations of sexual and gender-based violence."

The UN also states that crimes against humanity may have been committed in the western province, saying: "The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim groups (...) may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity."

What has been the reaction to the report?

There were mixed reactions to the long-awaited report, which has been the subject of intense pressure by those who wanted to make it public -- such as the US and human rights NGOs -- and China who wanted it dead and buried.

Beijing fiercely denounced the under 50-page document as a "farce" orchestrated by the West, having previously tried to block its release.

While it did not contain any new accusations against China, the report brings UN backing to the accusations levied against the Chinese authorities for a long time.

NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have said the findings should act as a springboard for further international investigations into the Chinese government's alleged crimes against humanity.

This report "lays bare the massive violations of fundamental rights by China", said Sophie Richardson, director of the Human Rights Watch for China.

The UN human rights council "should use this report to launch a full investigation into the Chinese government's crimes against humanity," she said.

In a comment attached to the report, the Chinese Embassy to the UN in Geneva slammed its findings.

The document is based on "disinformation and fabricated lies by anti-China forces" and "wantonly defames and slanders China and interferes in China's internal affairs," they wrote.

In response, Bachelet -- accused of being too lenient towards Beijing -- said: "Dialogue and trying to understand better does not mean that we are tolerant, that we look away or that we close our eyes."

What is the background to this report?

In the past five years, the Chinese government’s mass detention campaign in Xinjiang swept an estimated million Uyghurs and other ethnic groups into a network of prisons and camps, which Beijing called “training centres” but former detainees described as brutal detention sites.

Beijing has since closed many of the camps, but hundreds of thousands continue to languish in prison on vague, secret charges.

Past investigations have used official documents, testimonies and leaked footage to accuse Beijing of "detaining at least one million people", mostly Uyghurs, and carrying out "sterilisations" and "imposed labour".

Some countries, including the United States, France, UK, Netherlands and Canada, have accused Beijing of committing genocide in Xinjiang.

China has repeatedly denied these allegations, saying the camps are "vocational training centres" intended to keep people away from religious extremism.

Following a spate of low-level attacks from 2009 to 2014, which were attributed to Islamists or Uyghur separatists, the western region was subjected to Orwellian surveillance and security.

China's UN Ambassador Zhang Jun told reporters before the release of the report that "we do not think it will produce any good to anyone."

“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,” he said.

Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP
FILE: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet - Mahmud Hossain Opu / AP

Why has it taken so long to release this report?

Former Chilean President Michelle 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.

In June, Bachelet said she would not seek a new term as rights chief, and promised the report would be released by her departure date on 31 August. That announcement led to a swell in back-channel campaigns, including letters from civil society, civilians and governments on both sides of the issue.

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 Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang.