The story so far: China has vehemently rejected a report released by the United Nations Human Rights Office on “serious human rights violations” in the northwestern Xinjiang region. Charges of torture of Uyghurs and other mainly Muslim ethnic groups in the region may constitute possible “crimes against humanity”, concludes the long-pending assessment report, released on the final day of the four-year term of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
The human rights office cites patterns of torture, forced medical treatment, incidents of sexual and gender-based violence and adds that a substantial proportion of the Muslim population was put through so-called Vocational Education and Training Centres, or VETCs. Saying that “conditions remain in place for serious violations to continue and recur”, it has called for “urgent attention” from the U.N. and the global community.
The Uyghurs and the significance of the Xinjiang region
Located in the northwest and officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Xinjiang covers one-sixth of China’s territory. The region holds high strategic significance as it borders Russia, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and other central Asian countries and contains a wealth of natural resources. Some parts of the region were part of the ancient Silk Road and various nationalities and empires controlled Xinjiang over the centuries. The Communist Party took control of the region after its 1949 victory in the Chinese civil war.
Xinjiang is sparsely populated with a population of 25 million, the majority of which belong to mostly Muslim ethnic groups including Uyghurs. The ethnic composition of the region has seen a dramatic shift since 1949. Around 75 per cent of the total population included Uyghurs, while ethnic Han Chinese accounted for 7 per cent when the first census was done in 1953. However, the latest census shows that the Uyghur population has come down to 45 per cent (12 million) of the total in Xinjiang, while that of Han Chinese has increased to 42 per cent. The language and culture of Muslim ethnic communities Hui, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongol, Uyghurs and Tajik are distinct from those of the Han.
Allegations against China
China has been long accused of suppressing Muslim and other minorities and violating their human rights in Xinjiang. In 2014, Chinese leader Xi Jinping ordered a massive crackdown following violence in the region that spread to Beijing. In the years that followed, Uyghurs and others were sent into ‘re-education’ camps as part of the campaign. This was followed by a string of allegations of mass imprisonment, torture, compulsory sterilisation, sexual violence, destruction of Uyghur cultural and religious sites and forced labour.
Over the years, the international community has asked China to stop the abuse against minorities. The United States even accused China of committing “genocide”. Leaked internal documents have provided incriminating details on detention camps and violent methods used against minorities in Xinjiang. In 2018, a U.N. panel estimated in its periodic review that over a million Uyghurs and Muslim minorities had been forced into “political camps for indoctrination” in the Xinjiang region. Journalists and researchers have also reiterated these claims.
Beijing, however, has rejected such claims and insisted that its mass detention camps are designed to counter “terrorism and extremism”. It has maintained that no human rights were abused and attendance in camps was voluntary.
What does the human rights office assessment report reveal?
Four years after the U.N. panel called attention to reports of human rights abuse in Xinjiang, the High Commissioner visited China in March, followed by another visit to the region in May. After a long wait, the OHCHR released the report on August 31. While former detainees and others familiar with conditions at detention centres were interviewed, the authors of the report clarified that China was not always forthcoming with information, saying requests for some specific sets of information “did not receive a formal response.”
The report mentions evidence of forced labour, torture, sexual abuse, gender-based violence, and forced sterilisation. It, however, does not refer to genocide.
Arbitrary detention and violation of rights and law
The U.N. Human Rights Office concludes in its report that China committed “serious human rights violations” in the Xinjiang region under its anti-terrorism and anti-extremism strategies. It adds that discrimination against Uyghurs and other minorities in the region on perceived security threats without due process and for an indefinite duration violates human rights and international laws. “The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups, pursuant to law and policy, in context of restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights enjoyed individually and collectively, may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity,” the report says.
It notes that Chinese interpretations of “extremism” are exceptionally broad and often target standard tenets of Islamic religion and practice. “An environment is thus created in which religious or cultural practice or expression is conflated with “extremism” and can lead to serious consequences for persons so identified,” it adds.
Though the human rights office doesn’t confirm the number of people in detention camps in Xinjiang, the report says it is “reasonable to conclude that a pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention occurred” between 2017 and 2019.
It notes that evidence shows that an individual could be sent to a VETC facility for having too many children, being an “unsafe person,” being born in certain years, being an ex-convict, wearing a veil or beard, having applied for a passport and not having left the country, having foreign connections, attempting to cancel their Chinese citizenship, possessing dual registration in a neighbouring country, or for having downloaded WhatsApp.
Evidence of torture in camps
The report says allegations of torture, ill-treatment and sexual violence inside “vocation and educational training centres”, or VETCs, have been found credible even as China continues to deny harsh treatment of detainees. Two-thirds of former detainees interviewed claimed they were subjected to torture and ill-treatment. “Their accounts included being beaten with batons, including electric batons while strapped in a so-called “tiger chair”; being subjected to interrogation with water being poured in their faces; prolonged solitary confinement; and being forced to sit motionless on small stools for prolonged periods of time,” it mentions.
The report describes that almost all former detainees mentioned that they lost significant weight due to constant hunger. There was constant surveillance, with lights switched on throughout the night. “Some also noted that they were not allowed to speak their own language (whether Uyghur or Kazakh) and could not practice their religion, such as pray,” it adds.
One interviewee is cited as saying, “We were forced to sing patriotic song after patriotic song every day, as loud as possible and until it hurts, until our faces become red and our veins appeared on our face.”
Interviewees also said they were either administered injections, pills or both regularly, while their blood samples were collected in the VETC facilities. They also recounted how these medicines made them drowsy.
Another told the human rights office, “We received one tablet a day. It looked like aspirin. We were lined up and someone with gloves systematically checked our mouths to make sure we swallowed it”.
Detainees said the uncertainty about the reasons for their detention, the length of their stay, their conditions, the constant atmosphere of fear,lack of contact with the outside world and anxiety associated with the constant surveillance amounted to psychological torture.
Rape and sexual violence
Several spoke about sexual violence, including rape, at detention centres. Some interviewees said they were forced to perform oral sex during interrogation, while many were stripped naked. Some also recounted being subject to invasive gynaecological examinations.
Violation of reproductive rights
The report finds credible indications of violations of reproductive rights in the region. Official figures indicate a sharp decline in birth rates in Xinjiang from 2017, with the birth rate dropping from 15.88 per thousand in 2017 to 8.14 per thousand in 2019. The report, however, adds that the lack of available official data makes it difficult to conclude the full extent of the current enforcement of these policies and associated violations of reproductive rights.
Destruction of religious sites
Evidence of the destruction of religious sites in the region is mentioned in the report. The authors say they analysed satellite imagery and found that many religious sites either appeared to have been removed or tampered with.
Terming such incidents “deeply concerning”, the OHCHR adds it was not able to conclude the extent of destruction due to the absence of access to sites and information.
The pushback from China
China has maintained that its crackdown in Xinjiang is aimed at containing the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which is allegedly linked to radical outfits. Following the publication of the U.N. report, Beijing registered a strong opposition and denied any abuses in Xinjiang in a 122-page rebuttal. “The so-called assessment is orchestrated and produced by the US and some western forces. It is completely illegal and null and void,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
In a statement, spokesperson of the Permanent Mission of China to the U.N. Liu Yuyin said, “We firmly oppose this so-called “assessment” which is not mandated by the Human Rights Council, smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs. It seriously violates the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and undermines the credibility and impartiality of the OHCHR,” Labelling the assessment as a “farce plotted by some Western countries and anti-China forces”, China said, “It is completely a politicised document that disregards facts, and reveals explicitly the attempt of some Western countries and anti-China forces to use human rights as a political tool.”
China also maintained that Xinjiang enjoys social stability, economic development and religious harmony. “People of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are living a fulfilling life in peace. It is the best human rights practice and the greatest human rights achievement,” the statement claimed.