For years, China denied committing human rights violations in Xinjiang, denounced its accusers and tried to block a United Nations investigation. Now we know why. The U.N.’s long-delayed findings, finally released late last month, confirmed the most chilling allegations by ethnic Uyghurs: Systematic mass internment, disappearances, torture, cultural and religious erasure and political indoctrination of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities.
The U.N.’s human right office, which compiled the report, said these allegations may amount to crimes against humanity, the most severe violations, along with genocide and war crimes, under international law. Despite China’s long record of documented human rights abuses, this was the first time it faced such grave accusations from the United Nations.
The international community, working through the U.N., must respond with meaningful steps to end the abuses, free prisoners and hold Beijing to account.
The stakes extend far beyond Xinjiang’s borders. Strong action is essential to draw a line in the sand against an orchestrated campaign waged for years by China to gut the U.N.’s ability to protect human rights. This goes well beyond China’s frequent use of its Security Council veto to shield abusers like Myanmar and Syria. Chinese efforts include a behind-the-scenes war of attrition to undermine mechanisms like the The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the 47-nation Human Rights Council, which is tasked with addressing violations.
China’s offensive takes many forms, ranging from its attempt to defund the human rights component of U.N. peacekeeping operations in 2018 to intimidating civil society groups, blocking their U.N. accreditation and manipulating the Human Rights Council. The Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate goal is to cripple the international community’s ability to censure countries for human rights violations. The party’s own constitution candidly defines its rule as a “dictatorship,” and it sees human rights — and global scrutiny — as threatening its ability to crush challenges to its monopoly on domestic power and potentially impeding Beijing’s programs to build overseas influence like its Belt and Road Initiative. China’s leverage is growing. The rise of authoritarianism around the world provides a widening base of support from like-minded regimes. Global dependence on Chinese trade, investment and financial assistance allows it to strong-arm other countries into silence. Chinese nationals lead or occupy high positions in several U.N. agencies, and Beijing exercises growing control over other appointments and financial affairs. Its readiness to interfere with vital U.N. work was made clear in its obstruction of World Health Organization efforts to determine the source of the coronavirus.
Xinjiang shows how effective this strategy can be. Reports first emerged in 2017 that China was incarcerating up to a million Uyghurs and other minorities in re-education camps. (Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, have made up the bulk of Xinjiang’s population for centuries and have long chafed under Beijing’s control). China eventually acknowledged the camps existed, saying they were part of Islamic de-radicalisation efforts.
Horrifying allegations poured out: children separated from parents; Uyghurs punished when relatives spoke out overseas; women forcibly sterilized or sexually abused; and what the U.N. report would eventually call an “unusual and stark” decline in Uyghur birthrates. In leaked documents on the Xinjiang crackdown, President Xi Jinping called in 2014 for “absolutely no mercy.”