Mere minutes before the end of her four-year mandate at midnight on Aug. 31, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a long-delayed and long-awaited report on the Chinese government’s human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in the Xinjiang region. The report’s findings confirm wide-scale evidence of mass arbitrary detentions, family separations, torture, and religious persecution — and it concludes that Chinese authorities may have committed crimes against humanity.
But the delay has needlessly prolonged agony for the Uyghur and other communities that are seeking greater international pressure on the Chinese government to end its nightmarish repression. Now, it is imperative for governments and U.N. bodies to seize the report’s momentum and act swiftly to hold the Chinese government accountable and protect those who have bravely raised their voices and spoken out.
Protecting Those Who Spoke Out
The high commissioner’s report details the disturbing phenomenon of the Chinese government’s reprisals against Uyghurs from the region who shared their experiences of abuse. One person interviewed for the report said: “We had to sign a document to remain silent about the camp. Otherwise, we would be kept for longer and there would be punishment for the whole family.”
Given Beijing’s anger over the report’s release, and its well-known efforts to silence its critics around the world, governments with Uyghur diaspora communities should take steps to ensure that Chinese authorities do not harass or intimidate people in their countries. Any such intimidation should be promptly investigated and appropriately prosecuted.
The report’s heart-wrenching focus on how the Chinese state separated families, often across borders, should further compel governments to act. They should urgently establish efforts to try to locate the missing relatives of citizens of Uyghur descent in their countries, and press Beijing for the whereabouts and well-being of those individuals. Chinese authorities may dismiss those demands, contending that the family members are citizens of the People’s Republic of China, but steady diplomatic pressure will make that fiction harder to maintain.
In fact, consistent foreign government pressure has previously helped locate arbitrarily detained people and in some cases also achieved their release. Governments should move quickly to compile information about their own citizens’ missing relatives, and press for information about and the release of all those wrongfully detained.
Several governments, including Canada and the United States, have issued statements in response to the report, pledging to hold those responsible for the violations to account. Now it is time to put those words into action. Judicial officials who have the ability should, open preliminary investigations into crimes against humanity committed abroad, such as in China. In August, the Uyghur Human Rights Project and World Uyghur Congress, two prominent international Uyghur advocacy organizations, submitted a case in Argentina under its universal jurisdiction laws. The suit alleged that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity. Governments should bolster that effort through additional targeted financial and travel sanctions, which impose costs on individual Chinese government officials and agencies implicated in repression.
Shining a Spotlight on Beijing at the Human Rights Council
When the U.N. Human Rights Council next convenes in Geneva, on Sept. 12, member states should ensure that the report takes center stage. The Council should adopt a resolution, which is required to mandate discussion of the report, and ensure appropriate follow-up to implement its recommendations. It could go further and hold a special session on China, as a group of U.N. human rights experts recently urged. These are standard steps that states can take following a high commissioner’s detailed, critical report with little cooperation from the Chinese authorities.
Formally placing the report on the Council’s agenda will indicate to the Uyghur community that it in and of itself is not the end of the line — but rather just the beginning of concerted international action to establish a formal investigative mechanism. The U.N. did just that in response to recent human rights violations in Myanmar.
The fact that China’s ire — direct or indirect — nearly derailed the report speaks to Beijing’s power within the U.N. system. That flexing of diplomatic muscle hurts many others in addition to the Uyghurs, including human rights defenders, Tibetans, and residents of Hong Kong, along with those harmed by the draconian “zero Covid” policy, and those around the world unlawfully displaced by Beijing’s rights-disregarding development projects.
One way to ensure better outcomes in the face of the Chinese government’s hostility to U.N. human rights scrutiny is to establish a mandate to monitor and report to the Office of the High Commissioner, the Human Rights Council, and others on the Chinese government’s human rights violations.
Doing so would put Beijing on notice that it will pay a price for its abusive conduct, and will start to repair the damage to the U.N. human rights system’s resilience and credibility. Most important, these steps can reassure those who survive Beijing’s wrath and abuses that their experiences — not the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress scrutiny — set the agenda.