On 31 August, Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, ended her term as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The last report she published while still in Office points to multiple human rights violations in China, including torture, rape and forced sterilisations against the Uighur population. Bachelet thus ends a four-year term with a record of inaction on the issue.
Bachelet visited Xinjiang in May, attending a six-day government tour that critics said did little more than provide officials with a propaganda win. The report on Uighur’s situation in China has been mired in controversy due to multiple delays in its publication. The Asian giant had urged the UN not to make it public. In addition, Bachelet has been accused of being too soft on the allegations made in China. After almost a year, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report on the situation of Uighurs and other minorities on Chinese territory, suggesting that China’s large-scale internment and treatment of these populations in western China could amount to crimes against humanity. Human rights organizations have pointed to the significance of the findings, which expose the harm China has done to ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.
“The high commissioner’s damning findings explain why the Chinese government fought tooth and nail to prevent the publication of her Xinjiang report, which lays bare China’s sweeping rights abuses,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
Richardson called on the UN Human Rights Council to initiate an even more exhaustive investigation based on Bachelet’s report.
The report found that mass detentions in Xinjiang from 2017 to 2019 were marked by patterns of torture against the Uighur population. Human rights organizations have pointed to the arbitrary detention of more than one million Uighurs in a network that the state calls re-education camps. China has consistently claimed that the rights of the trainees in the camps are fully respected, denying any wrongdoing in these places. The UN report concludes that such arbitrary and discriminatory detention of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups may amount to crimes against humanity.
It has also been noted that in 2017 a programme of family planning policies was initiated. It violates Uighurs’ reproductive rights. Before that year, Uighurs were allowed to have two children in the city and three children in rural areas. It represented one more child than Han, the majority ethnic group in China. This year the family planning policy was changed, turning the limit to two children in urban areas and three in rural areas independent of ethnicity. The committee expressed concern about multiple reports of forced sterilisations and abortions carried out to limit births.
On the other hand, the UN has complained that the Chinese government’s implementation of anti-terrorism policies has led to accusations against the government of surveillance and control over the population. It suggests that security departments have access to data on various aspects of Uighur life, including biometric data. According to the text, there are indications of invasive electronic surveillance targeting ethnic minority groups. Behaviours such as downloading Islamic religious content or communicating with people abroad are reported to law enforcement as signs of “extremism” requiring police monitoring.
Finally, according to the report, the Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism has led to the adoption of legal instruments that tighten laws around religion. The UN found that China’s labour schemes purporting to alleviate poverty and prevent “extremism” may include elements of coercion and discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds. Not only has Beijing consistently denied any allegations of discrimination, but in response to the Xinjiang police files, China’s foreign ministry spokesman has called the document “the latest example of anti-China voices trying to defame the country”. The Asian country has pointed out that the crackdowns being carried out are necessary to safeguard the country from Islamic extremists and prevent terrorism. They also argued that re-education camps are an effective tool in the fight against terrorism.
Uighur lawyer Nury Turkel, chairman of the US Religious Liberty Commission, said in an interview that “the damage done to the Uighur population is irreversible. This crime is ongoing”. He noted that if the report had been released when it was ready, the number of victims would have been lower. Accusations of lèse humanité against China and of moral responsibility against Bachelet surround the latest UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report. The consequences of this will be seen, or not, in the UN’s response in forthcoming decisions.