China May Have Committed ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ in Xinjiang, U.N. Says

GENEVA — In a long-awaited report released on Wednesday, the United Nations’ human rights office accused China of actions that “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity,” in its mass detention of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim groups in its far western region of Xinjiang.

The assessment was released shortly before midnight in Geneva and minutes before Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, was set to leave office.

The release ended a nearly yearlong delay that had exposed Ms. Bachelet and her office to fierce pushback by rights groups, activists and others who had accused her of caving to Beijing, which had sought to block the report.

The report does not appear to use the word “genocide,” a designation applied by the United States and by an unofficial tribunal in Britain last year. But it generally treats as credible rights groups’ and activists’ claims that China has detained Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others, often for having overseas ties or for expressing religious faith.

The report is “an unprecedented challenge to Beijing’s lies and horrific treatment of Uyghurs,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch. “The high commissioner’s damning findings explain why the Chinese government fought tooth and nail to prevent the publication of her Xinjiang report, which lays bare China’s sweeping rights abuses.”

To Uyghur activists, the report’s findings were a powerful vindication of their yearslong effort to draw attention to the suppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Beijing has routinely rejected any assertions of arbitrary detentions and abuses in Xinjiang and has accused Uyghur activists of lying. The activists say their families in Xinjiang have been imprisoned, detained and threatened by the authorities to try to silence them.

“It paves the way for meaningful and tangible action by member states, U.N. bodies and the business community,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress. “Accountability starts now,” he added.

Tahir Imin, a Uyghur activist in Washington, said that because of the months of delays and pressure from Beijing, he was surprised that Ms. Bachelet had come through with releasing the report before she left office, and that its findings were forceful.

“I wasn’t expecting it to come up with such a strong conclusion,” he said by phone. “I was a little emotional when I saw it mentioned crimes against humanity.”

In comments emailed early Thursday local time by the office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights in Geneva, Ms. Bachelet said of the report, “I said that I would publish it before my mandate ended and I have.”

She explained that the delay in publishing had been because she “wanted to take the greatest care to deal with the responses and inputs received from the (Chinese) government last week.”

China, which received a copy of the report days before its release, had pressured Ms. Bachelet not to publish it. The report was a “farce orchestrated by the United States and a small number of Western powers,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said at a regular news briefing on Wednesday.

When news of the detentions began trickling out, the Chinese authorities at first denied the detention campaign, but later said they were teaching basic job and language skills to bolster employment and prevent radicalism.

Former detainees, however, have described physical abuse, mistreatment and hours of indoctrination in Communist Party ideology. Some of those held have included successful artists, scholars, businesspeople and other community leaders who had no need for job training.

The report said allegations of sexual and gender-based violence, including of rape, “appear credible and would in themselves amount to acts of torture or other forms of ill-treatment.”

It also said that the “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim groups “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The report said, however, that the U.N. agency was not able to confirm estimates of the total number of people held or affected by the system China calls vocational education and training.

Among its recommendations, the U.N. agency called on China to promptly release all people who have been arbitrarily confined, clarify the whereabouts of people who have gone missing and whose family members have sought information on them and investigate allegations of abuses in the facilities.

As the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Ms. Bachelet had spoken out frequently and often frankly on abuses and concerns across all continents, including on China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. But when it came to China’s treatment of dissidents and the allegations of crimes in Xinjiang, she had spoken with extreme caution.

Criticism against Ms. Bachelet intensified after she visited China in May and made a short trip to Xinjiang but offered little disapproval then of the crackdown in the region, instead saying the chief outcome of her trip was to foster high-level discussion with the Chinese authorities.

Ms. Bachelet’s comments were denounced by overseas Uyghurs and rights groups that accused her of ignoring widespread repression. The report by her office was welcomed as a long-overdue recognition of the abuses that China has been accused of committing as part of state policy in the region.

Though the report’s publication on Wednesday may spare Ms. Bachelet from charges by activists that she was derelict in her duty, it will not end the controversy over her dealings with Beijing.

U.N. investigators had a report on Xinjiang on Ms. Bachelet’s desk nearly a year ago, but she was accused of repeatedly deferring publication. At a recent news conference, she acknowledged that she had given priority to reaching agreement with Beijing on the terms of her visit to China.

Ms. Bachelet’s parting address to the Human Rights Council on Tuesday shed some light on her reasoning. She emphasized her belief in the importance of constructive dialogue with states and the need to do “everything possible to avoid a great fracture” in multilateral institutions.

Critics say her approach largely played into Beijing’s hands.

“By releasing this crucial report with just minutes left on her mandate, she has only done the bare minimum,” said Sarah M. Brooks, program director of the International Service for Human Rights. “We must now push for her office, her successor and states to ensure survivors get answers and perpetrators face accountability.”

Ms. Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to begin an investigation into the Chinese government’s “crimes against humanity targeting the Uyghurs and others — and hold those responsible to account.”

The long delay in publishing the report may make that harder.

Diplomats in Beijing said its late release left little time for governments or rights groups to build a robust response in the Human Rights Council, which starts its last session of the year in 12 days.

Nick Cumming-Bruce reported from Geneva, and Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong. Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York.

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