Uyghurs May Be Subjected To Crimes Against Humanity In Xinjiang -United Nations’ Report Finds

On August 31, 2022, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights announced that it would publish its report on China after all, despite protests from the Chinese representation to the United Nations. The report was ultimately published minutes before the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, concluded her mandate. The report finds that Uyghurs may have been subjected to international crimes, and in particular, crimes against humanity.

The announcement comes a year after in September 2021, Michelle Bachelet said at the opening of the U.N. Human Rights Council that her Office was “finalizing its assessment of the available information on allegations of serious human rights violations in that region, with a view to making it public.”

The publication of the report also comes several months after the U.N. visit to China. This first visit to China since 2005 has been highly choreographed and nothing of the “unfettered access” the U.N. has been requesting. The U.N. visit was agreed in response to reports of severe human rights violations in Xinjiang, China, and especially, atrocities against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. The U.N. visit commenced mid-May 2022, with little being known of the scope of the inquiry, the powers of the investigative team, and terms of reference, among others. On May 28, 2022, upon the conclusion of her visit, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated that it was not an investigation into China’s human rights policies. Then, Bachelet further phrased the concerns about the situation of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as a result of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures – the official line of the Chinese Government’s justification of the dire treatment of the Uyghurs amounting to genocide and crimes against humanity.

The new report concludes that “the information currently available to [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] on implementation of the Government’s stated drive against terrorism and ‘extremism’ in [Xinjiang] in the period 2017- 2019 and potentially thereafter, also raises concerns from the perspective of international criminal law. The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups, pursuant to law and policy, in context of restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights enjoyed individually and collectively, may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The report discusses the available evidence, however, without analyzing the particulars of international crimes, whether crimes against humanity of genocide. Despite failing short of making clear findings of international crimes, it clearly concludes that serious human rights violations have and continue to be perpetrated against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It sends a clear message that the evidence cannot be denied anymore.

The Chinese Mission to the United Nations and the Chinese government had access to the report for months and reportedly, tried to bury it. Upon the publication, the Chinese Mission issued a statement opposing the report and claiming that “is not mandated by the Human Rights Council, smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs. It seriously violates the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and undermines the credibility and impartiality of the [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.” However, now that the report is published engaging with the ever-growing evidence of atrocities, any attempt to undermine the report is doomed to fail.

The report sends a clear message to the Chinese government and other States that the mistreatment of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang cannot continue. Among others, the report calls upon the Chinese government to “take prompt steps to release all individuals arbitrarily deprived of their liberty” and “urgently clarify the whereabouts of individuals whose families have been seeking information about their loved ones in [Xinjiang], including by providing details of their exact locations and establishing safe channels of communication and travel enabling families to reunite.” Considering the Chinese government’s denial of any wrongdoing, it is unlikely that it will follow on these recommendations.

This is where the international community must act. Among others, States must seek to establish a United Nations mechanism to monitor the situation and collect and preserve evidence of human rights violations in China that could help to address the issue of justice and accountability in the future. The United Nations must recalibrate its approach to China to one that puts victims first.