Just minutes before the end of her term on Wednesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights dropped a damning report on China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
The report, which includes interviews with dozens of ethnic minority members, said the Chinese government’s actions in the northwestern region of Xinjiang may constitute “crimes against humanity.”
These claims aren’t new. Five years ago, the US State Department accused China of holding up to 2 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in detention camps, and last year went as far as calling it genocide.
But this report is noteworthy because, while the UN said reports of mass internment were “credible” back in 2018, little concrete action has been taken by the international body to address the issue.
China has repeatedly and vehemently denied accusations of human rights abuses in the region, and decried the UN report on Wednesday as “based on the disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces.”
Here’s what you need to know.
The 45-page report was the final offering from Michelle Bachelet, the head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), whose term ended at midnight Geneva time.
Bachelet promised to deliver the report after her controversial visit to China earlier this year, where she became the first UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to travel to the country to speak with senior government officials.
But some human rights groups accused Bachelet of being soft on Beijing, saying the conditions China imposed on the visit did not allow a full and independent assessment of the rights environment.
The report was also delayed multiple times, with some worried it would never be published amid pressure from an irate China.
The report contains harrowing firsthand allegations of human rights abuses based on interviews with 40 people of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnicities, 26 of whom had either been detained or worked in facilities in Xinjiang.
Some interviewees said they had been beaten with batons while strapped to a chair, interrogated while water was poured in their faces, placed in prolonged solitary confinement, constantly surveilled, deprived of sleep and food, forbidden from speaking their own language or practicing their religion, and forced to sing patriotic songs.
Some spoke of sexual violence including rape, sexual humiliation and forced nudity. Many said they were forcibly given injections and pills, without information about what the medical treatments were.
Alongside the interviews, the report also cites information from public documents, research materials, and the Chinese government’s own policy papers.
The report also criticized the Chinese government’s wider crackdown on ethnic minorities.
New rules had been introduced prohibiting activities such as wearing hijabs and “abnormal” beards, giving children Muslim names, and closing restaurants during Ramadan, the report said.
Other rules threatened the population’s linguistic diversity and heritage, with authorities banning the use of the Uyghur language in educational texts and slogans, as well as in public activities, it added.
The report also lists alleged violations of reproductive rights in Xinjiang, where it says ethnic minority birth rates have dropped sharply “in comparison with the rest of China.”
Several interviewees spoke of the threat of forced birth control, including forced sterilization.
The report also describes China’s allegedly “invasive” surveillance network, with police databases containing hundreds of thousands of files with biometric data such as facial and eyeball scans, that it says indicate “widespread surveillance of the ‘ethnic language population.’
The OHCHR makes several recommendations to the Chinese government in the report, including the release of arbitrarily detained individuals and clarification of the whereabouts of missing individuals.
It also urges the government to curb its surveillance so it doesn’t violate fundamental rights and freedoms, and to provide reparations for victims.
The OHCHR also calls for urgent attention by “United Nations intergovernmental bodies and human rights system, as well as the international community more broadly.”
China responded to the report with its own 131-page document, saying the UN’s investigation “distorts” China’s laws and policies.
“All ethnic groups, including the Uygur, are equal members of the Chinese nation,” China’s response said. “Xinjiang has taken actions to fight terrorism and extremism in accordance with the law, effectively curbing the frequent occurrences of terrorist activities.
“At present, Xinjiang enjoys social stability, economic development, cultural prosperity and religious harmony. People of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are living a happy life in peace and contentment,” the document said.
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China’s mission to the UN in Geneva also expressed “strong dissatisfaction,” with senior diplomat Liu Yuyin, accusing the High Commissioner of having “smeared and slandered China, interfered in China’s internal affairs, seriously violated the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”
The Chinese government maintains that its so-called “vocational education” centers have been closed since 2019.
The UN report said that it’s “not in a position to confirm this,” citing a lack of official information or open access to enter the region.
The UN report has no legal underpinning, and is unlikely to prompt any significant change or concession from Beijing, which has repeatedly ignored decisions by international bodies in the past.
However, activists and overseas Uyghurs have welcomed the report as a symbolic step and a new level of recognition by the UN of the human rights violations alleged in Xinjiang. Some hope the report can act as an international wake-up call.
But what comes next isn’t clear; even if a majority of countries within the UN Human Rights Council were to vote to establish a formal probe, there’s no mechanism to compel China to comply.