UN’s Bachelet releases report on Xinjiang, citing possible crimes against humanity

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at a press conference in Bangladesh. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu)

Michelle Bachelet accused China of committing “serious human rights violations” against the Uyghur and other muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region only minutes before the end of her term.

The outgoing UN rights chief published the long-awaited report 13 minutes to midnight on 31 August, concluding that China’s detainment policies of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.

The release of the report puts an end to more than six months of speculation about whether the report would ever see the light of day. Bachelet had allowed the suspense to linger until her last day as UN high commissioner for human rights, telling reporters last week that her office “was trying” to get the report out by the end of her term.

This stoked fear among rights campaigners that the thorny issue would be passed on to her successor, who is yet to be named. Earlier on Wednesday, the UN in New York told reporters that the human rights office in Geneva would be releasing the report without giving further details.

The publication was reportedly delayed by a last minute counter-report by the Chinese government, which contained photos, names and other sensitive information about people accused of extremism that the UN office had to cross out for privacy reasons.

China had led a fierce campaign to quash the report until the last moment, claiming in a 130-page-response that Bachelet’s assessment “wantonly smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs”.

What the report says. The 48-page document details “credible” allegations of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture of Uyghur other muslim minorities, stemming from the government’s discriminative counter-terrorism policies.

“Serious human rights violations have been committed in XUAR in the context of the Government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-‘extremism’ strategies,” the report states. “These human rights violations, as documented in this assessment, flow from a domestic ‘anti-terrorism law system’ that is deeply problematic from the perspective of international human rights norms and standards.”

These practices, according to the findings, have led to the “large-scale arbitrary deprivation of liberty of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities” in what the government has branded as “Vocational Education and Training Centres”.

“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 further recognises how China’s policies have “transcended borders”, causing victim’s families abroad to suffer from the separation but also from “intimidations and threats” when they have dared to speak out in public against the allegations.

NGOs welcome ‘historic’ report. The publication of the report has been hailed by rights groups that have been calling for months for its release. ​​“The UN human rights chief for the first time lays bare the Chinese government’s grave abuses and concludes they may amount to crimes against humanity,” John Fisher, global advocacy deputy director at Human Rights Watch in Geneva, said in a statement.

“Victims and their families whom the Chinese government has long vilified have at long last seen their persecution recognised, and can now look to the UN and its member states for action to hold those responsible accountable.”

While welcoming the “historic” report, NGOs were not so quick to forget Bachelet’s questionable decision to hold off its publication in exchange for a visit to Xinjiang, which she finally conducted in May.

“The High Commissioner took a dangerous gamble. She seemingly believes that constructive dialogue with China can be more effective than public criticism of policies that violate human rights in Xinjiang and elsewhere,” said Sarah Brooks, programme director at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR).

“By releasing this critical report with just minutes left on her mandate, she has only done the bare minimum.”

Rights groups are calling on countries, which have so far settled for statements of condemnation, to take up the Xinjiang issue at the Human Rights Council, which is due to meet on 12 September in Geneva.

Fisher said: “Governments should waste no time establishing an independent investigation and taking all measures necessary to advance accountability and provide Uyghurs and others the justice they are entitled.”