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China rejects call for U.N. probe in Xinjiang

China lashed out against Human Rights Watch's report calling for a U.N.-led probe of alleged crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province.

Id Kah Mosque, a center of Islamic culture for Muslim Uyghurs in Kashgar, China
Id Kah Mosque, a center of Islamic culture for Muslim Uyghurs in Kashgar, China (AN/J. Heilprin)

China's government lashed out on Tuesday against Human Rights Watch's call for a United Nations-led investigation into alleged crimes against humanity targeting ethnic Uyghurs in China's remote Xinjiang Province.

Asked about HRW's report a day earlier concluding that China's mass detention of Muslim Uyghurs involves crimes against humanity, China's Foreign Ministry spokeperson Wang Wenbin called the report "pure slander" meant to undercut China's stability and development.

The 53-page report found China's government is committing crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang through offenses such as mass detention, torture, forced labor, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, mass surveillance, separation of families, and cultural and religious erasure. It cited government documents, news articles and research by scholars and other human rights organizations.

"The accusation of 'genocide' and 'crimes against humanity' are lies of the century concocted by certain Western countries and anti-China forces," Wang told a regular press briefing. "Certain organizations have spread relevant fallacies based on lies and disinformation concocted by anti-China forces, out of prejudice against China and for political purposes. We are firmly opposed to and totally reject their groundless accusations and slanders."

Crimes against humanity involve widespread, systematic attacks knowingly committed against a civilian population. They can be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent international criminal court, which has jurisdiction over the most serious crimes under international law — crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and aggression.

“Chinese authorities have systematically persecuted Turkic Muslims – their lives, their religion, their culture,” HRW's China director, Sophie Richardson, said. “Beijing has said it’s providing ‘vocational training’ and ‘de-radicalization,’ but that rhetoric can’t obscure a grim reality of crimes against humanity.”

The ICC is meant to serve as a court of last resort when nations are unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves. However, China never joined The Hague, Netherlands-based ICC, which is not part of the United Nations system.

The Rome Statute, a treaty that underpins the ICC’s authority, took effect in July 2002. China and six other nations — Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, the United States and Yemen — voted against it.

Coordinated international action

The U.N. Security Council, the most powerful arm of the world body, can refer a matter to ICC prosecutors for investigation even in a country that does not recognize its jurisdiction, but that rarely happens. And China is one of the 15-nation council's five permanent members with veto power; the others are Britain, France, Russia and the United States.

With the council's path to the ICC likely blocked by China, HRW and Stanford University's Center for Human Rights and International Justice recommended the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva adopt a resolution authorizing a commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, where more than 1 million people have been confined at camps that China says were built to promote jobs, economic development and anti-Islamic radicalism.

The New York-based human rights organization also suggested governments impose visa and travel bans plus targeted sanctions against authorities responsible for criminal acts, and that prosecutors in some of those countries open cases against those authorities under laws affording “universal jurisdiction" in dire cases.

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration and the former Trump administration both took the unusual step of accusing China of genocide in Xinjiang. Lawmakers in Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands also have invoked that designation. HRW stopped short of concluding there was evidence to support that.

“It’s increasingly clear that Chinese government policies and practices against the Turkic Muslim population in Xinjiang meet the standard for crimes against humanity under international criminal law,” said Beth Van Schaack, an international criminal law expert at Stanford and former U.S. diplomat for war crimes issues. “The government’s failure to stop these crimes, let alone punish those responsible, shows the need for strong and coordinated international action.”

Wang, the foreign ministry spokeperson, said China would welcome any visitors that had "fair and objective" views of the nation, but it would oppose allowing anyone to visit who might be part of a "so-called 'investigation' based on presumption of guilt and fabrication of lies with attempt to smear China."