The UN Report on Uyghurs: Breakthrough or Compromise?
Giovanni Panzeri 20 September 2022

At the end of August, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet released a sweeping report detailing the dire situation of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, which recognizes  that “serious human rights violations have been committed” in the region “in the context of the government application of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism” strategies.


In a nutshell

The report, in summary, states:

–>That the legal framework adopted by China to justify the restrictions in Xinjiang, in particular the legal definitions of “terrorism” and “extremism”, is extremely vague, broad and open to interpretation by officials in a way which allowed for a “large scale arbitrary deprivation of liberty of members of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim communities”.

–> That evidence of a system of arbitrary detention lies in the constitution of large detention and re-education camps, the so called Vocational Educational and Training Centers (VETCs), and other facilities, characterized by credible allegations of torture, sexual violence and forced medical treatment.

–> That this detention system is complemented by the adoption of “far reaching arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedom” on the wider Uyghur community, under the pretense of acting against terrorism and extremism, including restrictions on religious identity and expression, on the rights to privacy (i.e., party cadres sent to live with Uyghurs families periodically for a number of days) and movement. There are also credible indications of violations of reproductive rights, including coercive family planning and birth control policies, and forced labor, linked in part to the afore-mentioned VETCs.

–> One of the effects of these policies is the separation of families and severing of human contacts, with family members outside China left completely in the dark about the situation, location and health of their relatives for extended periods of time. According to direct testimonies of people escaped from Xinjiang, the same can be said of the families of Uyghurs detained in the VETCs living inside the region.

The report relies on evidence gathered through direct interviews conducted by the OHCHR, and on extensive data, testimonies, investigations and documents collected and analyzed in years of work by different human rights organizations (between them Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), UN bodies, Uyghur rights advocacy groups, think tanks, and media outlets.



China predictably denied any allegations of wrongdoing in its response, a 122-page document attached to the report itself, denouncing the report as the fruit of “anti-China forces in the US and the West”, describing the VETCs (which they claim to have closed in 2019) as aimed at teaching Chinese language, re-inserting people influenced by “extremism” in the community and providing work to the unemployed, all of this while trying to convey that China anti-terrorist laws are precise and meant to protect the general population, Uyghurs included.

On the other hand, as reported by Al-Jazeera, Uyghurs advocacy groups celebrated the report as “a game changer” which, in the words of World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa, “paves the way for meaningful and tangible action by member states, UN bodies, and the business community”.

Uyghur groups further called on the Human Rights Council to “initiate a comprehensive investigation into the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity targeting the Uyghurs and others”.

Indeed, the Human Rights Council is convening in these days and will be pressed to take action on the issue, with one option being the launch of an investigation that could bring evidence before an international court.


Relevance and Effects

In truth, the report might have no concrete effects on the actions of China, at least not in the near future.

Indeed, a Human Rights Council investigation, as reported by Reuters, may not be a likely outcome of the deliberations taking place in Geneva given China’s influence on the member countries represented in the body.

As for the content itself, it hardly represents any ground-breaking news, since it was largely already brought to public attention thanks to the work of the afore-mentioned human rights and Uyghur organizations, and the UN deftly avoids defining the Chinese government actions as a “cultural genocide” against the Uyghurs, in contrast with the position assumed by many human rights organizations, and countries.

Hence this report, which constitutes the first firm position assumed by a UN body against the actions of the Chinese government in Xinjiang, might remain a largely symbolic victory for the Uyghurs and human rights organizations, which in any case may be able to use it to more effectively lobby countries and international institutions.

However the publication of the report itself is noteworthy from an international relations perspective.

Indeed, the UN has always encountered serious obstacles in taking positions against human rights violations committed by members of its own Security Council and, as reported by Al-Jazeera, the High Commissioner has been under tremendous pressure “to publish and not to publish” the report by the US and a number of countries and human rights organizations on one side and, obviously, by China on the other, supported by North-Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba.

We’ll have to wait to see how and if the present report will further factor in the climate of increasing international tensions between China, the US, and their respective allies.


Cover Photo: Outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet gives a final press conference at the United Nations offices in Geneva on August 25, 2022. – Bachelet faces pressure to release a long-delayed report on the situation in the Xinjiang region, where Beijing stands accused of detaining more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities — charges it vehemently denies. She has vowed the report will be released before she steps down, at the end of the month. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)


Cover Photo: Outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at her end-of-mandate press conference – Geneva, August 25, 2022 (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP).

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