Two weeks ago, the United Nations Human Rights Office published a report on the western region of Xinjiang in China, where there has been a large-scale crackdown on the Uyghur population and other communities in Muslim predominance. The report, released by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who stepped down minutes after it was released, found that the Chinese government had committed violations that could amount to “crimes against the ‘humanity”. Although the report does not call China’s actions “genocide,” as the US government has done, or even mention the term, it found widespread and systemic human rights abuses, including including the “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of perhaps more than a million people. China tried to block the release of the report, which was repeatedly delayed after a project was completed nearly a year ago.
I recently spoke by phone with Nicholas Bequelin, visiting scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. Bequelin, the former regional director of Amnesty International in Asia, worked on Human Rights Watch’s first report on Xinjiang in 2005. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether the UN had gone far enough in its findings. , whether the label of “genocide” should apply to Xinjiang, and what really motivates China’s repressive policies.
There seems to be some division among experts as to whether this report is a long-awaited vindication of those who have drawn attention to the horrific human rights abuses in western China or whether the report is incomplete. How do you see it?
The publication of this report has been the subject of much criticism against the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many of these reviews overlook the difficulty of the position. The Office of the High Commissioner is not Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. They are independent civil society organizations with no ties to specific states. The High Commissioner is an international civil servant in an interstate organization; it is always a high-flying act to fulfill the mission of the office. In this case, the office came under enormous pressure from China not to publish the report. At the same time, the bureau’s credibility was at stake as the amount of evidence in the public domain on the scale of abuses in Xinjiang is overwhelming.
Failure to publish a factual report on the situation would have seriously undermined the authority of the High Commissioner’s office in the eyes of the general public and within the United Nations system itself. Bachelet published it, but less than a quarter of an hour before retiring, leaving his successor to deal with the fallout. Having said that, I think the content of the report is fair, balanced and authoritative.
What’s so important about the report?
The most important element of the report is that violations in Xinjiang and policies carried out in Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity under international human rights law. This means that China is committing atrocities in Xinjiang, which is extraordinarily significant. To my knowledge, this is the first time that the Office of the High Commissioner has come to this determination with regard to China. China has never been accused of committing crimes against humanity by any UN agency. And it was also consistent with the findings of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among other organizations, which have published surveys on Xinjiang.
Anything less than that qualification would have been problematic. The very definition of crimes against humanity is widespread and systematic abuse. In this case, there is a deliberate policy aimed at targeting a particular group – the ethnic minorities of Xinjiang – and carrying out large-scale and systematically repressive policies that result in very serious violations, such as enforced disappearances, torture, murders, sexual violence, etc. .
The report also draws two important conclusions. The first is that the entire framework on which China relies in this campaign to combat what its government calls terrorism and extremism is inconsistent with its international human rights obligations. The [supposed] the crimes are vaguely defined. They are determined arbitrarily.
Are these the crimes that China accuses the Uyghurs of having committed?
To correct. Terrorism, religious extremism, participation in illegal religious activities, etc. According to the UN report, the entire legal framework that China has put in place to combat what it says is the risk of terrorism or religious extremism is at odds with human rights standards. man. It’s arbitrary, it’s vague, it’s politicized and it doesn’t provide the kind of legal safeguards and remedies that should exist, especially when it comes to deprivation of liberty. If you put people in an internment camp, there should be legal procedures for that. In the program that China has been deploying for several years in Xinjiang and which has led to the internment of hundreds of thousands of people, even millions, none of these guarantees are present.
The second important element is that a series of very serious violations – torture, enforced disappearances, intimidation, eradication of religious or cultural expression – have been observed. The legal basis and implementation of the campaign is deeply contrary to human rights, which is extremely important when it comes from a United Nations agency.
Have the investigators found anything that should change our way of understanding what is happening in Xinjiang? And if yes, how ?
I don’t think there’s anything new in the report, but a lot of the information comes from the High Commission, which is conducting its own investigation and review. In other words, they didn’t collect clippings and put them together in a beautiful story with a bow. They interviewed more than forty people, which is significant – these are first-hand accounts – and examined and assessed the authenticity and authority of a wide range of documents and information, including internal documents from Chinese state and Xinjiang authorities, satellite images, and a host of regulations and laws.
They conducted their own independent assessments and came to the same conclusions on many counts. They did so in a very objective and balanced way, knowing that their findings would be scrutinized in the public domain, by member states and by China itself. Why is it important that a UN agency publishes these reports rather than a newspaper or human rights organization? I think it’s the difference between the spectators at a sports match who claim that one of the teams has committed a foul and the referee who shouts a foul on the field. It’s an official sanction from the person, or in this case, the UN agency, who has been given the explicit mandate to make these kinds of decisions. It has a very different weight in international politics than independent NGO reports, and certainly a heavier weight than anything published so far.
To take your analogy further, you could say that a sports referee does not just determine if something was a foul, but must punish the players for committing the foul. It would be a difference here.
Yes, it’s a limited analogy, but when a report making these kinds of allegations is published, the Human Rights Council should be obliged to take additional measures, either to set up a investigation or to take action on the fact that these very serious allegations have been established. The Office of the Secretary-General cannot sit idly by and pretend that nothing has happened. They have to accept it, and I think it is the preparation for a confrontation between China, as well as all the allies among the party states that it manages to forcefully arm, and the members of the UN who are serious about upholding human rights standards.
The tone of the report is decidedly very critical of China. You talked about crimes against humanity. The report says that China “may” have committed crimes against humanity, right? It doesn’t go all the way. Is this problematic?