Minutes before her term as UN human rights chief ends, Michelle Bachelet released the long-awaited report on the horrifying situation in Xinjiang, China. In the report, his office confirmed evidence of serious and shocking human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs and other Muslims. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s demagogy in propaganda, the damning report demands a response from rights-respecting nations. Otherwise, human rights promises will be mere euphemisms.
The report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) revealed that “serious human rights violations have been committed” in Xinjiang, also known as “XUAR”. The report’s authors stated how “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” that “often directly or indirectly affect Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim communities”. The report speaks of mass detentions, prayer bans, sexual assaults, family separations and other forms of persecution.
China lobbied furiously against the report, particularly against a finding of genocide. A diplomat said he believed the UN authors bowed to pressure from Beijing and watered down the section on forced sterilization to weaken the genocide claims. The official Chinese response was hyperbolic and lengthy, a 131-page response to a 48-page document. They criticized the supposed “disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces”. Without irony, China urged OHCHR to “respect the will of the Chinese people” and to view its “counter-terrorism efforts and human rights policies in Xinjiang fairly and objectively.” A Chinese diplomat said the publication of the report “closed the door to cooperation” with the United Nations.
Although Beijing would like to ignore the report’s shocking findings, its documentation warns the world that international crimes, especially crimes against humanity, have been perpetrated against Uyghurs by the Chinese government. The results reflect what other countries and organizations have determined; several concluded that a genocide was taking place. Therefore, the UN and rights-respecting Member States should begin a process towards justice and accountability.
Currently, no existing mechanism can collect and preserve evidence from Xinjiang and engage on the issue of international crimes against the parameters of international law. Forty-five UN-appointed independent experts recently issued a statement supporting the findings, highlighting extreme human rights restrictions and how “the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghur members and other predominantly Muslim minorities…may constitute international crimes, including certain crimes against humanity”. The experts called on the Human Rights Council to convene a special session on China.
While the Human Rights Council should be the venue of choice, the small membership and current membership make such a session unlikely. However, another venue may be more fruitful: the United Nations General Assembly. Scheduled to meet in New York, the body can establish an accountability mechanism.
The United States, United Kingdom and France would need to build a global north-south coalition, including major countries such as Brazil, Japan, Korea, Australia, Kenya and others. As we saw with the resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the General Assembly can rise at the moment. Such an effort would not be easy, of course, in the face of intense Chinese lobbying. Muslim-majority nations have been remarkably quiet about the persecution of Uyghur Muslims due to pressure from China. However, a global campaign could shame them to defend their co-religionists or push them to abstain. Only a simple majority is required.
The new UN report on China must be a call to action. It documents atrocious crimes and clearly shows the need for a response. With the convening of the General Assembly, rights-respecting nations should work to establish a specialized mechanism for the situation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Leadership is needed to ensure justice and accountability for Uyghurs. Will the world react?
Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab is the co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response. Follow her on Twitter @EwelinaUO.
Knox Thames was the US special adviser on religious minorities during the Obama and Trump administrations. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.