According to a report released by the UN Human Rights Office two weeks ago, the Uyghur population and other primarily Muslim minorities have been subjected to widespread repression in China’s western Xinjiang province. Michelle Bachelet, the head of the U.N., released the findings. Although the report does not label China’s actions “genocide,” as the American government has, or even mention the term, it did find widespread and systemic abuse of human rights, including “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of perhaps more than a million people. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, who left office minutes after issuing it, found that China’s government had committed violations that may amount to “crimes against humanity.” China attempted to stop the report from being released — after a draught was finished almost a year ago, it was constantly delayed.
I recently spoke with Nicholas Bequelin, a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. Bequelin, a former Amnesty International regional director for Asia, contributed to an early Human Rights Watch report on Xinjiang in 2005. Our conversation, which has been condensed and modified for clarity and length, covered whether the U.N. went far enough in its conclusions if Xinjiang should be classified as a “genocide” and what motivates China’s oppressive actions.
There seems to be some disagreement among experts as to whether or not this study represents the long-awaited vindication of those who have been calling attention to the horrifying human rights violations in western China. What do you think?
The High Commissioner for Human Rights has come under heavy fire for publishing this report. Many of these criticisms ignore how challenging the job is. Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International are not the same as the Office of the High Commissioner. These are independent civil society groups that are not affiliated with any state. The High Commissioner’s job is a high-wire daily performance as an international public servant in an interstate organisation. In this instance, China pressured the office to withhold the report from publication. The office’s reputation was also in jeopardy due to the massive volume of information concerning the scope of violations in Xinjiang that is available to the general public.
The authority of the High Commissioner’s office in the eyes of the public and within the U.N. system itself would have been severely weakened had a factual report on the situation not been published. To give her successor time to deal with the ramifications, Bachelet issued it less than fifteen minutes before she announced her resignation. I believe the report’s information to be trustworthy, authoritative, and unbiased.
What part of the report is so crucial?
The report’s most crucial point is that, in terms of international human rights law, the crimes committed in Xinjiang and the policies implemented there may qualify as crimes against humanity. This is important because it indicates that China is killing people in Xinjiang. To my knowledge, the Office of the High Commissioner has never made this decision about China before. A U.N. organisation has never charged China with crimes against humanity. Additionally, this was in line with the findings of Xinjiang studies published by NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Anything that didn’t meet that standard would have been troublesome. Abuses that are pervasive and systematic are the very definition of crimes against humanity. In this instance, there is a determined policy to target a specific group—the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang—and to implement extensive and systemic oppressive measures that result in severe violations, like forced disappearances, torture, murder, sexual violence, and so on.
The report also makes two significant discoveries. The first is that China’s entire approach to combating what its government refers to as terrorism and extremism is incompatible with its commitments under international human rights law. The [alleged] offences are not specified. They are chosen at random.
These are the offences that China holds the Uyghurs accountable for.
Correct. Extremism in religion, participating in unlawful religious activity, and so forth. The U.N. study claims that China’s entire legal system, which it argues is designed to counter the threat of terrorism or religious extremism, is incompatible with human rights norms. It lacks the legal protections and remedies that ought to exist, particularly in cases where people’s liberties are deprived. It is arbitrary, nebulous, and political, and it lacks consistency.
The second crucial factor is the discovery of several grave crimes, including torture, forced disappearances, intimidation, and suppression of religion or cultural expressions. It is essential to note that the campaign violates human rights gravely on both its theoretical and practical levels, mainly when a U.N. body is carrying it out.
Did the investigators uncover anything that ought to alter our perception of what has been happening in Xinjiang? If so, how exactly?
I don’t believe the report has any novel material, but the Office of the High Commissioner’s inquiry and review provided much of the data. In other words, they didn’t compile news articles and assembled them into a polished report and bow. They reviewed and evaluated the authenticity and authority of a wide range of documents and information, including internal documents from the Chinese state and the leaders in Xinjiang, satellite images, and various regulations and laws. They also conducted more than forty in-depth interviews, which is significant because these are first-hand witness accounts.
They did their independent analyses and shared many of the same findings. Knowing that their conclusions would be closely scrutinised by the general public, the member nations, and China, they conducted it in a highly objective and balanced manner. Why does it matter if a U.N. body publishes these reports instead of a newspaper or human rights organisation? I believe there is a distinction between a spectator’s assertion that one of the teams has committed a foul and the referee making an official call for a foul on the field. In this case, the U.N. organisation, which has been explicitly mandated to make these judgements, has sanctioned it in writing. It holds a much larger weight than anything previously published and a completely different weight in international politics than independent NGO reports.
You may extend your comparison by saying that a sports official gets to decide whether something was a foul and also gets to punish the players who committed the offence. This would be different as a result.
Yes, this is a strained analogy, but when a report of this nature makes a claim, the Human Rights Council ought to be required to act, either by establishing a fact-finding mission or by working on the fact that these highly severe allegations have been proven. The Office of the Secretary-General cannot passively observe and maintain the illusion that nothing occurred. They must take it up, and I believe it will set up a showdown between China and any other party state allies it can coerce and the U.N. members committed to defending human rights standards.
The report’s tone is undoubtedly quite negative about China. Crimes against humanity were cited. According to the findings, China “may” have committed crimes against humanity. It does not succeed ultimately. Is that an issue?
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network