On September 21, U.S. President Joe Biden hailed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a standout United Nations achievement.
Addressing the 77th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Biden declared respect for human rights “the basis for all that we seek to achieve,” then turned his attention to regimes that are endangering fundamental freedoms.
That included the Chinese government’s abuses of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s northwestern Xinjiang, as detailed in a recent report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Diplomats and rights activists from other Western countries this week called on the U.N. to act on findings of the report, delivered in August by the U.N.’s outgoing high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet.
But on September 21, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, denied the report’s legitimacy, claiming that Western forces are exploiting the human rights issue “to destabilize Xinjiang and use it to contain China.”
“The so-called assessment [by Bachelet's office] is orchestrated and produced by the U.S. and some Western forces and is completely illegal, null and void," Wang told reporters.
Wang’s claim that the U.N. report is illegal, null and void is false. What’s at issue here is the legality of China’s behavior.
In addition to numerous treaty obligations to protect human rights, the U.N. report states, China is “bound by human rights norms” that constitute “customary international law,” specifically regarding “the right to life, the prohibition of discrimination based on race, religion or sex, and the right to freedom of religion.”
But Bachelet’s report adds weight to a growing body of evidence showing Beijing has engaged in mass internment, torture, religious repression, forced labor and state-backed sterilization, which some say meets the U.N. definition of genocide.
As an authoritarian state, Beijing has the final say on news media access, the release of documents and access to facilities. Individuals who speak out are subject to state coercion, and even those who flee China have seen their families targeted.
Thus, substantiating allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang has been a painstaking, piecemeal process.
Bachelet’s report, published on August 31, came four years after U.N. human rights experts drew world attention to reports that China was targeting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the name of combating religious extremism.
Bachelet’s report said China’s crackdown on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
That aligns with independent assessments by international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as Uyghur scholars, Uyghur activists, investigative journalists and think tanks.
The U.N.’s rights office relied on official Chinese documents, research materials, satellite imagery and other open-source information to reach its conclusions.
“[P]articular attention was given to official [Chinese] Government documentation and information, including laws, policies, statistical data, court decisions, and official statements and White Papers made public by the [Chinese] Government, as well as a number of other documents that are in the public domain and which OHCHR has assessed as highly likely to be authentic based on strong indicia of official character,” the report said.
The OHCHR also conducted in-depth interviews with 40 individuals “with direct and first-hand knowledge of the situation” in Xinjiang.
The report noted that 26 of the interviewees had been detained in facilities in Xinjiang since 2016, and more than a third had not publicly spoken before.
“In each case, OHCHR assessed the reliability and credibility of these persons, the veracity of the information conveyed, and its coherence with information obtained from other sources,” the report said.
The report’s findings corroborated years of earlier research documenting the plight of Uyghurs.
For example, the report found it “reasonable to conclude that a pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention” occurred at “Vocational Education and Training Centers” (VETC) facilities, set up for “de-radicalization” and “re-education.”
That tracks with reports and research on those detention centers, including the “Xinjiang Police Files” published by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.; BuzzFeed’s award-winning investigative reporting; testimonials by former detainees; and findings of the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent British panel of lawyers and scholars.
Two-thirds of the ex-detainees interviewed reported “treatment that would amount to torture and/or other forms of ill-treatment,” Bachelet’s report says, while claims of sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, “appear credible.”
Former detainees have independently reported those and other allegations of grave abuse here, here and here.
The U.N. examined the control of reproductive rights and Xinjiang’s declining birthrate since 2017, and found that, according to official population figures, Uyghur-majority areas represented “the bulk” of the population decline.
These “unusual and stark” figures also reflect “sterilizations and IUD (intrauterine devices) placements” in Xinjiang. Official data showed “an unusually sharp rise in both forms of procedures in the region during 2017 and 2018, in comparison with the rest of China,” the U.N. found.
For example, the rate of sterilization in Xinjiang was 243 per 100,000 inhabitants, versus 32.1 per 100,000 inhabitants for all of China.
China has tried to frame this as women “no longer being baby making machines.”
The U.N. report notes that “various government documents” show the Chinese government associates the “frequency in childbirth among the ethnic population in [Xinjiang] … with ‘extremism’.”
Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, has written extensively about China’s Uyghurs. Zenz presented extensive evidence of coercion in his paper, “Sterilizations, IUDs, and Mandatory Birth Control: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uighur Birthrates in Xinjiang.”
Beijing has consistently attacked Zenz as “a right-wing Christian” looking to slander the Chinese Communist Party. But witnesses quoted by various media outlets have corroborated findings in Zenz’s report.
Also in line with previous reports and research, the U.N. found that China has severely curtailed religious freedom, with expressions of faith targeted under the Chinese Communist Party’s vague definition of extremism. Wide-scale destruction of mosques and other religious sites in China has also been documented.
The U.N. treads lightly around the issue of forced labor, noting the “close link” between China’s labor schemes and its “counter-extremism” framework, including the detention facilities. That, the U.N. said, “raises concerns in terms of the extent to which such programs can be considered fully voluntary in such contexts.”
The New York Times, other media outlets and academic researchers have drawn a firmer connection between forced labor and China’s internment system.
Under intense pressure from Beijing, the U.N. report almost failed to see the light of day. In May, when Bachelet finally visited Xinjiang, she was only able to do so on Beijing’s terms.
Bachelet said she “was not able to speak to any Uyghurs currently detained or their families during the visit,” and “was accompanied by government officials throughout the visit to Xinjiang.”
In July, evidence surfaced showing that Beijing had directly lobbied Bachelet to scuttle the report.
James McMurray, a lecturer at the University of Sussex, said there is reason to believe Bachelet delayed release of the “sobering report” out of fear it “would end any cooperation from China for the period of her tenure.”
In its final assessment, Bachelet’s report concludes that “serious human rights violations” have occurred in Xinjiang due to “a domestic ‘anti-terrorism law system’ that is deeply problematic from the perspective of international human rights norms and standards.”