By Jonah McKeown
A highly anticipated report from the United Nations chronicles China’s mistreatment of the Uyghur ethnic group, a Muslim minority in the far western region of Xinjiang that according to the United States is suffering genocide.
The report includes testimony from 40 people who say they were subjected to arbitrary detention as well as various forms of torture and humiliation, including sexual mistreatment.
“Serious human rights violations have been committed in XUAR in the context of the Government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-’extremism’ strategies,” outgoing U.N. Human Rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet wrote.
“The implementation of these strategies, and associated policies in XUAR has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights. These patterns of restrictions are characterized by a discriminatory component, as the underlying acts often directly or indirectly affect Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities.”
Since at least 2017, Uyghurs — with estimates ranging as high as 1.8 million — have been detained in hundreds of “reeducation camps” in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Inside the camps, the Uyghurs are reportedly subjected to various forms of torture — such as beatings during interrogations, solitary confinement, and deprivation of food and sleep — and political indoctrination. Outside the camps, Uyghurs are monitored by pervasive police forces and facial recognition technology.
The Aug. 31 report, published minutes before Bachelet’s term in office ended, was heavily criticized and opposed by China, which has argued that its actions in Xinjiang are a response to terrorism in the region and that they are providing work opportunities for ethnic minorities.
China has for years conflated the Uyghurs’ culture and religious activities with extremism and separatism. The government at one time denied the camps even existed but has since shifted to defending its actions as a reasonable response to a national security threat.
Bachelet concluded that China’s “vague, broad and open-ended concepts” of extremism, as well as a lack of safeguards for the people of Xinjiang, has “in practice led to the large-scale arbitrary deprivation of liberty of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities in XUAR.”
“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 continues.
The United States formally labeled China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide in January 2021. And in June 2022, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act went into effect, banning the importing to the U.S. of goods produced in Xinjiang unless it can be clearly demonstrated that they were produced without the use of forced labor.
U.S. officials welcomed the report, with the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) releasing a statement calling the “damning” report “a deeply incriminating review of the grave abuses committed in the region, including torture, sexual violence, coercive population control policies, forced labor, and family separation.”
“The conclusion that authorities’ mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and others may have committed crimes against humanity corroborates what human rights advocates and members of the Uyghur diaspora have documented for years. In doing so, the report sends a powerful message that the international community, including the UN, must act now to ensure accountability for the atrocity crimes perpetrated by Chinese officials in XUAR,” wrote Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative James McGovern (D-MA), the Chair and Cochair respectively of the CECC.
The CECC also called for countries to refrain from returning Uyghurs to their homeland and instead provide them humanitarian assistance, and also called for other countries to pass their own versions of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin denouncedthe report as “completely invalid and a political tool serving the US and some Western forces,” criticizing the fact that it was based on the testimony from 40 interviewees, saying that such a small number is “not enough to be used as samples to jump to a serious conclusion against a country on human rights.”
The U.S. Department of State recently warned that the Chinese government is actively attempting to “manipulate and dominate global discourse on Xinjiang and to discredit independent sources reporting ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity.”
The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery had previously identified two methods of forced labor in Xinjiang, one of which is a system that detains minorities and subjects them to work placements, while the other system shifts rural laborers into other forms of low-skilled, low-paid work. While the Chinese government claims that the programs provide work opportunities for minorities, the report found that “indicators of forced labor pointing to the involuntary nature of work rendered by affected communities have been present in many cases.”
China’s crackdown on Xinjiang also includes alleged coercion to have contraception devices inserted and even allegations from some women of full sterilization. Hospitals in the region have reportedly committed forced late-term abortions on Uyghur women and killed newborn Uyghur babies to enforce China’s family planning policies, according to a former hospital worker in the region. Uyghur women, who used to have among the highest fertility rates in the country, have seen precipitous drops in fertility in recent years.
In the most recent report, Bachelet wrote that several women interviewed raised allegations of forced birth control, in particular forced IUD placements and possible forced sterilizations for Uyghur and ethnic Kazakh women. Some women spoke of the risk of harsh punishments including “internment” or “imprisonment” for violations of the family planning policy; some women who said they were forced to have abortions or forced to have IUDs inserted after having reached the permitted number of children under the family planning policy.
“These first-hand accounts, although limited in number, are considered credible,” the report states.
The Vatican has remained largely silent on the persecution of the Uyghurs, though Pope Francis did describe the Uyghurs as a persecuted people in a book published in 2021. The Chinese foreign ministry responded by saying that the claim was groundless.
Other Catholic leaders have condemned China’s actions in Xinjiang, with two Asian cardinals and 74 other religious leaders releasing a statement in August 2020 calling the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs “one of the most egregious human tragedies since the Holocaust.”
Nothing in the most recent U.N. report is legally binding; even if a majority of countries within the U.N. Human Rights Council were to vote to establish a formal probe, there is no mechanism to compel China to comply, CNN reported.