Human rights activists and Western diplomats have urged the United Nations to take action over China’s reported mistreatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
“Discrimination of this kind and in such dimensions is not acceptable in today’s world,” Bob Rae, Canada’s permanent representative to the UN, said in his opening remarks at a forum on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The panel discussion this week was in response to the release of a long-awaited UN human rights report which found that China’s government committed “serious human rights violations.”
Last month, Michelle Bachelet, on the last day of her tenure as UN high commissioner for human rights, published her office’s assessment of the situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region or XUAR.
The study stated that China “may have committed crimes against humanity” against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups under the pretext of counterterrorism and counter-extremism measures.
UN human rights officials also called on Beijing to account for its practices and to release all individuals arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.
The report went on to describe other rights violations in Xinjiang in areas including religious, cultural and linguistic identity and expression, as well as rights to reproduction, privacy and freedom of movement. Forced labor, family separation and reprisals for speaking out were also reported.
“How these atrocities are addressed goes ultimately to the credibility of the UN system, to the credibility of our international system itself,” Jeffrey Prescott, the deputy to the United States ambassador to the UN, said during the forum.
“It’s deeply disheartening to see a country that has been so central to the creation of the modern UN system, and enjoys the status of a permanent member of the Security Council, so profoundly violating its commitments,” he added.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the immediate predecessor to Bachelet as UN human rights commissioner, said more needs to be done while crediting the high commissioner’s office for publishing the document.
“There are two shortcomings in the way that I read this report,” he said, adding that one was not to refer to the abuses as genocide and the other was not calling for the establishment of a formal UN commission of inquiry into the findings of the report.
A “commission of inquiry” is a UN investigative tool that would look further into allegations of human rights violations and push for accountability.
“Inaction is no longer possible. If we allow this to go unpunished, what kind of message is being propagated?” Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on minority rights, said at the forum.
During a session of the Human Rights Council on September 13, Chen Xu, the Chinese ambassador to the UN in Geneva, spoke on behalf of his country and 28 countries. He delivered a joint statement that said:
“We are deeply concerned that the OHCHR, without the authorization of the Human Rights Council and the consent of the country concerned, released the so-called ‘assessment’ on Xinjiang, China, which is based on disinformation and draws erroneous conclusions.”
Also this month, Chen said his government could not cooperate with the UN human rights office following the release of the report.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, also described the UN document as “completely illegal,” during a media briefing this month.
“It is a patchwork of disinformation that serves as a political tool for the US and some Western forces to strategically use Xinjiang to contain China,” he said.
“In recent years, Xinjiang has enjoyed sustained economic growth, social harmony and stability, better living standards, cultures thriving like never before, and freedom of religious beliefs and religious harmony,” Wang told reporters.
Still, the United States and Canada called China’s actions in Xinjiang genocide. The European Parliament described China’s treatment of Muslim, Turkic ethnic groups in Xinjiang as posing “a serious risk of genocide.”
Washington has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the mistreatment of Uyghurs. It has also implemented a law called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to stop goods made by Uyghur forced labor from entering the US market.
“We need to deal with the question of what further sanctions will be required. We need to deal with the question of what further steps could be taken to respond to the extent of this crisis,” Canada’s Rae said.
Nury Turkel, the chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, is asking member states to urge the incoming high commissioner to further investigate the situation in Xinjiang and suggested opening a UN commission of inquiry.
“We do hope the OHCHR report will galvanize further support from those nations who have so far abstained from taking the kind of necessary action that crimes against humanity should invoke,” Turkel said.
“Turning a blind eye to the perpetration of crimes against humanity and persecution of a religious minority would be an unconscionable failure,” Carolyn Nash, the Asia advocacy director for Amnesty International USA, told Voice of America.
Nash pointed out that the UN human rights office’s report corroborated extensive evidence of serious violations previously documented by Amnesty and other rights groups.