Guards surround a large group of detainees in an internment camp in Xinjiang, China. Illustration ©Molly Crabapple

China: Anniversary of UN’s damning Xinjiang report must be ‘wake-up call’ to action

The one-year anniversary of a damning UN report on Xinjiang stands as a grave reminder of the need to hold China to account for crimes against humanity amid a “woefully inadequate” response by the international community, Amnesty International said today.

On 31 August 2022, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its long-awaited assessment on the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, finding that violations by the Chinese government against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities – including torture and mass imprisonment in internment camps – “may constitute… crimes against humanity.”

“Rather than urgently acting on the report’s findings of serious violations of international law in China, the international community – including important components of the UN itself – has shied away from the kind of resolute steps needed to advance justice, truth and reparation for victims,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for China, Sarah Brooks.

The OHCHR’s assessment on Xinjiang was released on the final day of previous High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s term. Its publication had been severely delayed, with High Commissioner Bachelet indicating a year earlier that it was being “finalized”. In a draft letter to Bachelet leaked by the media, Chinese authorities had reportedly urged the High Commissioner “not to publish” her office’s report on the situation in Xinjiang. 

In October 2022, Human Rights Council member states rejected by a narrow margin a resolution that would have called for a debate on the report – an initiative that already fell short of calls from 50 of the Council’s own appointed experts (the Special Procedures) for a special session on the issue. 

Urgent need for accountability on Xinjiang

Bachelet’s successor, Volker Turk, committed in December 2022 to “personally engage with (Chinese) authorities” about the grave human rights violations highlighted in the report. However, his public follow-up – including a statement in March 2023 that his office had opened “channels of communication” with Beijing, and another in June 2023 reiterating his office’s efforts to seek “further engagement” – is yet to clearly emphasize the urgent need for accountability for these alarming violations. 

“We need national and international officials, including human rights officials such as the High Commissioner, to use all levers at their disposal – both public and private – to seek meaningful change in China’s repressive policies, including by engaging in frank, evidence-based dialogue with the authorities about their human rights violations,” Brooks said.

The OHCHR’s assessment mirrored reporting by Amnesty International and other credible organizations documenting patterns of torture or other ill-treatment as well as incidents of sexual and gender-based violence, among a catalogue of human rights violations. 

The UN report found that the “extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The report added that “the conditions remain in place for serious violations to continue and recur,” creating additional urgency for a prompt and effective effort to address the situation. 

The anniversary of the report comes in the same week President Xi Jinping made a surprise visit to the Xinjiang city of Urumqi, in which he called on officials to strengthen curbs on “illegal religious activities”. Chinese authorities have repeatedly dismissed accusations of human rights violations in the region.

“The one-year anniversary of the OHCHR report must be a call to action for the international community. The need for states, through the Human Rights Council, to establish an independent international mechanism to investigate crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations in Xinjiang is as urgent as ever. Families of those who have been arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared or mistreated want and deserve answers and accountability, not delays and compromises,” Brooks said. 

Since 2017, there has been extensive documentation, including by the UN Special Procedures of China’s crackdown against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, carried out under the guise of fighting terrorism. In 2021, a comprehensive  report  by Amnesty International demonstrated that the systematic state-organized mass imprisonment, torture and persecution perpetrated by Chinese authorities amounted to crimes against humanity.  
Amnesty International’s Free Xinjiang Detainees campaign has, to date, profiled 126 individuals who are among the perhaps one million or more people who have been held in arbitrary detention in internment camps and prisons in Xinjiang since 2017.

Top image: Guards surround a large group of detainees in an internment camp in Xinjiang, China. Illustration ©Molly Crabapple