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Showdown over U.N. report on Xinjiang abuses

A U.N. report finds China's persecution of Muslim Uyghurs may constitute crimes against humanity, drawing calls for accountability and Beijing's scorn.

Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Id Kah Mosque, a center of Islamic culture for Muslim Uyghurs in Kashgar, China
Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Id Kah Mosque, a center of Islamic culture for Muslim Uyghurs in Kashgar, China (AN/Preston Rhea)

GENEVA (AN) — A U.N. report finds China may have committed crimes against humanity in its arbitrary detention and persecution of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, prompting widespread calls for accountability and the Chinese government's scorn.

Human rights groups' demands for justice and more investigation competed with Beijing's denouncement of the report on Thursday by Geneva-based spokesperson Liu Yuyin, who said it "smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs."

The Geneva-based Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, concluded in a 48-page report that China's brutal treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups in the remote northwest province over the past five years and the nation's efforts to cover it all up "may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity."

China signaled the depth of its infuriation in a 131-page response entitled “Fight against Terrorism and Extremism in Xinjiang: Truth and Facts,” which OHCHR also published and is well more than double the size of the report.

OHCHR said investigators found the Chinese government carried out "severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights" under the pretense of "counterterrorism,” and that the situation "requires urgent attention" by China, the United Nations and international community — but China "holds the primary duty" to comply with international human rights law.

"Individuals who are arbitrarily deprived of their liberty should be immediately released," the report says. "As the conditions remain in place for serious violations to continue and recur, these must also be addressed promptly and effectively."

The long-delayed report breaks little new ground but strongly reinforces extensive research by other human rights groups and news media outlets. It is based on interviews with former detainees and others who provided descriptions about conditions at the so-called education and training centers in Xinjiang between 2017 and 2019 where Uyghurs have been forcibly held and put to work, and forced to renounce their culture, language and religion.

The descriptions included alleged torture, rape and other sexual violence. China has since closed many of the internment camps but kept imprisoned hundreds of thousands of the people who were once in them, according to the U.N. report.

Call for 'an independent international mechanism'

OHCHR issued the long-awaited report on late Wednesday, just hours before its chief, Michelle Bachelet, finished serving out the four-year term she began in September 2018.

A year ago, Bachelet, a former president of Chile and human rights activist, expressed "regret" that the report to the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council still wasn't finished. In December, her office said it would be released in “a matter of a few weeks.”

Just a week before the report's release, Bachelet said her office faced “tremendous pressure to publish or not to publish” it. "We're trying very hard to do what I promised," she said.

Human rights organizations and European, Japanese and U.S. governments welcomed the report. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a news conference on Thursday his government "will urge China to provide transparent explanations and take positive and concrete actions."

Some worried the report might never be released.

"There can be little doubt why the Chinese government fought so hard to pressure the U.N. to conceal it," said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard. The report, she said, "lays bare the scale and severity of the human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang" that her organization also concluded were crimes against humanity.

"It is time for the U.N. Human Rights Council to set up an independent international mechanism to investigate these crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations in Xinjiang," said Callamard, a former U.N. special rapporteur who headed the global body's investigation into Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi's murder.

Bachelet announced in June — soon after returning from a heavily stage-managed trip to China that drew widespread criticism — that she would not serve a second four-year term because she wanted to return to her homeland.

At the end of the trip she acknowledged she was "unable to assess the full scale" of the Xinjiang detention centers. While Bachelet was in China, U.S.-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and international news media published the “Xinjiang Police Files,” hacked from police computers.

That trove of documents, speeches, spreadsheets and images of detainees in Xinjiang showed what Bachelet was obstructed from observing: the massive scale of surveillance and reeducation practices imposed by Beijing as part of a yearslong crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs in the region.