Just hours before her four-year term ended, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet released a controversial long-delayed report that asserted that China may be guilty of “crimes against humanity” in its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang.
The “restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights enjoyed individually and collectively” by the Uyghur and other Muslims “may constitute international crimes, in particular, crimes against humanity”, the report released in Geneva just before midnight Wednesday said.
It blamed the Chinese government’s campaign against terrorism for what it said was the “arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups” and the restrictions on religion.
It mentioned reports that the Muslim minorities were subjected to sexual violence, torture and forced labour in the camps, and mosques and cemeteries were destroyed.
Bachelet, the former President of Chile who became the Human Rights High Commissioner in 2018, was facing criticism for delaying the release of the report and for a visit to China while it was under preparation.
During the trip in May, she visited the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) where the Muslim minority was being repressed by the Chinese government.
The China visit added to speculations about the delay in the release of the report.
Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard said after its release that the delay “casts a stain” on the Officer of the High Commissioner for Human Rights”.
Deafening the delay, Bachelet said that she “wanted to take the greatest care to deal with the responses and inputs” from Beijing, with whom an advance copy had been shared.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in May after her visit that Washington was concerned about Beijing’s “efforts to restrict and manipulate her visit” to Xinjiang where “genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing”.
Several activist organisations, including the Human Rights Watch, also criticised her.
Bachelet said her visit had not been for “an investigation” but “to better understand the situation in China” and to speak frankly with Beijing officials.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres however, has defended Bachelet.
His spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said on Wednesday: “He fully respects the independence of the Office of the High Commissioner and the work of the High Commissioner.
Bachelet, whose term ended on Wednesday, announced in June that she was retiring and would not seek another term but Guterres is yet to announce her successor in the position that is perpetually embroiled in controversies with barrages of criticism from both governments and activists.
The 46-page report said that the information available to the high commissioner’s office “on implementation of the Government’s stated drive against terrorism and ‘extremism’ in XUAR in the period 2017- 2019 and potentially thereafter, also raises concerns from the perspective of international criminal law”.
Referring to the massive detention camps by Beijing’s name for them, “Vocational Education Centres (VETC)”, the report said that the “patterns of abuse” there “come against the backdrop of broader discrimination against members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities based on perceived security threats emanating from individual members of these groups”.
The minorities face “far-reaching, arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms, in violation of international norms and standards”, the report said.
The restrictions include “undue restrictions on religious identity and expression”, and “violations of reproductive rights through the coercive and discriminatory enforcement of family planning and birth control policies”.
Besides the Uyghurs, Kazakh and other predominantly Muslim minority families also have suffered under Beijing’s policies, it said.
The report “allegations of torture, sexual violence, ill-treatment, forced medical treatment, as well as forced labour and reports of deaths in custody” of the minorities in the detention camps and called for investigating them.
Noting the “increasing restrictions on expressions of Muslim religious practice”, the report said that there “are recurring reports of the destruction of Islamic religious sites, such as mosques, shrines and cemeteries”.
The report quoted a 2019 Beijing official document that said that “since 2014, Xinjiang has destroyed 1,588 violent and terrorist gangs, arrested 12,995 terrorists, seized 2,052 explosive devices, punished 30,645 people for 4,858 illegal religious activities, and confiscated 345,229 copies of illegal religious materials”.
Callamard said the report “lays bare the scale and severity of the human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang, which Amnesty International previously concluded amounted to crimes against humanity. There can be little doubt why the Chinese government fought so hard to pressure the UN to conceal it”.
(Arul Louis can be contacted at email@example.com and followed at @arulouis)