After the UN report on the situation of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, the German government warned Beijing to respect human rights. All those arbitrarily detained must be released immediately and the allegations of the most serious violations of human rights must be clarified by an independent party, the Foreign Office in Berlin said on Thursday. The EU and the United Nations will discuss the consequences of the report, it said, with reference to possible forced labor in supply chains.
According to the UN Human Rights Office, crimes against humanity may have been committed in Xinjiang. This is the conclusion reached by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in her report, which has been eagerly awaited for months. She published it on Wednesday evening just before midnight – ten minutes before the end of her term.
The descriptions of people held in so-called vocational training centers revealed patterns of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, it said.
“The extent of the arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim groups (…) may constitute international crimes, particularly crimes against humanity,” the report reads. People were denied fundamental rights from 2017 to 2019 and possibly beyond. The possibility form is used in the report because the crimes have not been proven by a court.
The report was actually supposed to be published in 2021. The People’s Republic had vehemently rejected the publication. Why did Bachelet hold him back for so long? In an interview with the Tagesspiegel, Australian ex-Prime Minister and China expert Kevin Rudd points out the UN’s procedures for such reports. They intend to give the states concerned plenty of time to draft an answer. Bachelet acted out of “procedural fairness” to take the wind out of China’s sails with a view to its expected counter-criticism that the report was not properly published, says Rudd.
Bachelet was previously accused of careless dealings with China. For months she negotiated with Beijing about being able to travel to the country. In May 2022 she finally visited China – including Xinjiang. She refrained from criticizing Beijing’s actions in the region, which led to international protests. The Chilean ex-president then gave up a second term as UN High Commissioner.
One of the sticking points of the trip was that the UN Human Rights Office wanted to decide for itself where Bachelet would go and with whom she could speak without official supervision. Your office said China had responded to the demands. Bachelet’s quiet tones about Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang drew criticism from the German government, among others. There was no clarification of the accusation of serious human rights violations there, it said in Berlin.
Human rights organizations welcome the fact that the report has now appeared. “The report confirms what Human Rights Watch has been saying for years and has documented extensively,” says Wenzel Michalski, director of the organization’s Germany office, in an interview with the Tagesspiegel. China uses forced labor and commits “cultural annihilation through ‘re-education’.” It is important “that the crimes committed by the Chinese government against Uyghurs in Xinjiang are now officially and independently confirmed.”
Overall, the report agrees with Human Rights Watch’s assessment that China’s actions could constitute crimes against humanity. Amnesty International also praised the publication. The human rights organization called on the UN Human Rights Council to set up an independent international mechanism to investigate the crimes in Xinjiang.
However, Human Rights Watch criticized Bachelet for delaying publication. “It’s terrible that it took so long,” says Michalski. The publication on Bachelet’s last day in office shows that there was a “real danger” that China would prevent the appearance. “That would have been a disaster, because it would have meant that the pressure from the Chinese government was so great that even the human rights chief of the UN, i.e. the top human rights defender in the world, would have caved in. She just averted that – and then disappeared as fast as her legs would take her,” says Michalski.
Bachelet, meanwhile, has defended himself against allegations of unfair consideration for China. She always relied on dialogue, she said on Wednesday evening. “Dialogue (…) does not mean that I condone, overlook or turn a blind eye,” said Bachelet. “And it doesn’t exclude speaking your mind.”
Bachelet was under immense pressure, as she reported last week. While many government officials have been waiting for publication with growing impatience, she has also received a letter from around 40 governments urging her not to publish. She did not name individual countries.
Some human rights groups criticize that the UN report does not speak of genocide, as does the US government and several parliaments, including Canada and Great Britain. Dilaxat Raxit of the World Uyghur Congress told Reuters that the report confirmed the atrocities but did not characterize them as genocide. Michalski emphasizes that crimes against humanity “are in no way to be classified under international law” as genocide. Human Rights Watch also does not speak of a genocide – not because the organization rules it out, but because the evidence is currently insufficient, says Michalski.
According to the UN report, the institutions designated by China as vocational training institutions were “large-scale arbitrary detentions”. The briefing was “a form of deprivation of liberty”. There have also been credible reports of rape.
The “extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim-majority groups may constitute “international crimes, particularly crimes against humanity,” the report said. The international community must “urgently” deal with the human rights situation in Xinjiang.
The exact number of those affected could not be determined. The office cites sources that speak of up to a million detainees. People the office spoke to said they were being guarded by gunmen and, contrary to Chinese accounts, could not leave the facilities of their own free will. They had little or no contact with their families and were forced to make positive comments before interviews.
The authorities had extensive power over the detainees and there were no guarantees of protection against abuse. The UN Human Rights Office has complained that the Chinese definitions of terrorism and extremism, which Beijing has used to justify its actions in the region, are vague.
China does not recognize the report’s findings and published a 131-page replica. Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called the UN document the “lie of the century”.
China had previously opposed publication of the human rights report. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry on Wednesday called the report a “farce orchestrated by the United States and a small number of Western powers.”
Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun said the “so-called Xinjiang problem” is primarily a “politically motivated lie” designed to undermine China’s stability and hamper China’s development. The report also constitutes “interference in China’s internal affairs.”