Skip to main content

China May Have Committed ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ in Xinjiang, UN Says

China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in its northwestern region of Xinjiang may “constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity,” the United Nations human-rights office said in a long-awaited—and oft-delayed—report issued Wednesday.

Released just minutes after Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, ended her four-year term at midnight in Geneva, the 45-page assessment said that “arbitrary and discriminatory” detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the name of fighting counter-terrorism and counter-“extremism” have resulted in “interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions” on a “wide range of human rights.”

While it didn’t employ the term “genocide” as other agencies and organizations have done, the UN office agreed that descriptions of detentions between 2017 and 2019 were marked by “patterns of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, other violations of the right of persons deprived of their liberty to be treated humanely and with dignity, as well as violations of the right to health.”

The report was unable to confirm the number of detainees who have passed through these so-called vocational training centers, but said that it was likely “very significant,” comprising a “substantial proportion” of China’s Uyghur population at least between 2017 to 2019.

Related Stories

It also acknowledged the growing restrictions on expressions of Muslim religious practice, along with “recurring reports” of the destruction of Islamic religious sites such as mosques, shrines and cemeteries. Indications of violations of reproductive rights through the coercive enforcement of family planning policies likewise appear “credible,” but the lack of available government data makes it difficult to draw conclusions on their “full extent.”

Regarding forced labor, the UN office sorted allegations into two “main contexts,” one involving placements in detention camps and upon “graduation” and the other concerning “surplus labor” and “labor transfer schemes” in Xinjiang and other parts of China.

Beijing’s own white papers and public statements, it noted, show a “clear link” between its detention facilities and employment schemes. Companies in China also appear to have been incentivized to hire Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, including former vocational education “trainees.”

“The government states that such employment is based on voluntary labor contracts in accordance with the law,” the report said. “However, the close link between the labor schemes and the counter-’extremism’ framework, including the [vocational training center] system, raises concerns in terms of the extent to which such programs can be considered fully voluntary in such contexts.”

Signs that such labor and employment schemes “appear to be discriminatory in nature or effect” and include “elements of coercion” also require “transparent clarification” by the Chinese government, it added, echoing somewhat less equivocal findings from the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery last month that it was “reasonable to conclude” that forced labor was taking place among Uyghur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing.

The report recommended that the Chinese government take “prompt” action to release anyone who was being arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang, clarify the whereabouts of individuals whose families have been looking for them, investigate allegations of human-rights violations in detention facilities and provide “adequate” remedy and reparation to any victims.

The UN office also urged Beijing to “urgently repeal” all discriminatory laws, policies and practices against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. It must also conduct a “full review” of the province’s legal framework governing national security, counter-terrorism and minority rights to ensure compliance with binding international human-rights laws.

To the business community, the report suggested that it fortify its human-rights risk assessment of companies involved in the surveillance and security sector, including those whose products and services could lead or contribute to adverse human-rights impacts. Corporations, it said, must take “all possible measures” to respect human rights across all activities and relationships as laid out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This includes conducting “enhanced” human-rights due diligence and reporting on those findings in a transparent manner.

Writing on Twitter on Wednesday, noted Xinjiang policy expert Adrian Zenz said that the UN office’s “very conservative” use of data, plus Beijing’s own sources, to draw its conclusions will “make it very hard for China to counter or refute it.” But there are some weak spots, he said, including those relating to forced birth prevention.

“Overall, the report is not perfect and a lot of available supporting evidence was not used,” Zenz said. “But it will provide a strong and authoritative basis going forward from here for holding Beijing accountable.”

A number of Uyghur-rights organizations welcomed the report Wednesday, calling it a “game changer” for the international response to the humanitarian crisis.

“Despite the Chinese government’s strenuous denials, the UN has now officially recognized that horrific crimes are occurring,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, calling on the UN Human Rights Council to “take up the issue” in a special session or urgent debate with the goal of establishing an independent commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

Even though some campaigners accused the human-rights office of waiting “far too long” to deliver its conclusions, they also said that any lingering excuses have all dried up.

“The truth of China’s atrocities has once again been documented, and there can be no shying away from the obligation to act,” said Rushan Abbas, executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs. “Stopping genocide was a foundational purpose of the UN, and it must be upheld now.”

In its response Thursday, the Chinese government cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the report, calling it “completely illegal, null and void.” Speaking at a scheduled press conference in Beijing on Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin described the report as a “patchwork of disinformation that serves as a political tool for the U.S. and some Western forces to strategically use Xinjiang to contain China.”

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an unofficial group of legislators from Australia, Europe, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere, said Thursday that the onus is now on member states to “ensure that formal legal determinations are pursued, including investigations into alleged genocide and crimes against humanity.”

“Far from being the final word on the matter, this represents the very beginning for states who have yet to voice concern in defense of Uyghur rights,” said the group, which seeks to change how democratic countries approach China. “IPAC also calls upon businesses to remove supply chains at risk of being tainted by forced labor in the Uyghur region, in line with their commitments to tackle modern slavery.”

Japan was among the first governments to comment on the report.

“Japan is highly concerned about human-rights conditions in Xinjiang, and we believe that it is important that universal values such as freedom, basic human rights and rule of law are also guaranteed in China,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Thursday.

Germany’s Foreign Office released a statement the same day saying there was “cause for greatest concern.” It also pressed Beijing to “immediately grant all people of Xinjiang their full human rights.”

In the United States, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Representative James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), the respective chair and co-chair of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China, called the report a “damning assessment” of China’s “brutal treatment” of Uyghurs and underscores the “urgent need to hold officials accountable for their action.”

“The report provides a deeply incriminating review of the grave abuses committed in the region, including torture, sexual violence, coercive population control policies, forced labor and family separation,” they said late Thursday. “The conclusion that authorities’ mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and others may have committed crimes against humanity corroborates what human rights advocates and members of the Uyghur diaspora have documented for years.”

Merkley and McGovern are pushing for the creation of an “independent mechanism” to analyze and report on human rights in China, including either a special rapporteur or a secretary-general special envoy to “analyze and report on human rights in China.” They also asked that other governments implement policies and legislation similar to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to “protect consumers and prevent businesses from being complicit in activities that abet atrocities.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday, too, that the United States “welcomes this important report, which describes authoritatively the appalling treatment and abuses of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups by the government of the People’s Republic of China.”

A ‘core requirement’ for businesses

The report arrived as a group of 39 investors voiced its support for legislation that would mandate human rights and environmental due diligence across corporate operations and value chains in the United Kingdom.

“All businesses, including investors and other financial actors, have a responsibility to respect human rights and the environment,” the group, which includes Abrdn, Brunel Pension Partnership, Legal & General Investment Management and Storebrand Asset Management, wrote in an open letter. “The process of continuously conducting robust human-rights and environmental due diligence is a core requirement for businesses and investors in fulfilling that responsibility, as framed in the recognized international standards of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.”

The investors, which collectively represent 3.8 trillion pounds ($4.4 trillion) of assets under management or advice, said that a Business, Human Rights and Environment Act in the vein of the European Union’s upcoming Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive could provide Britain with “an opportunity to retain its leading role in business and human rights by bringing forward its own legislation.”

Investors, they said, could cause, contribute to or otherwise be linked to “adverse impacts” through their investment holdings in companies or projects implicated in human rights and environmental harms.

“Comprehensive human rights and environmental due diligence by companies enables investors to identify the greatest risks to people and the planet linked to portfolios and to fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights,” they said. “It allows investors to make more informed and sustainable investment decisions and demonstrate to beneficiaries that their money is being managed in line with international standards and expectations.”

Due diligence legislation, they added, will support investors’ sustainability assessments, bolster risk analysis and processes for impact mitigation and provide a deeper understanding of company operations throughout the value chain. It can also enable investors to “conduct better-informed engagement with investees, to respect human rights and give due consideration to environmental issues.”

Mandatory due diligence legislation, both on the social and environmental fronts, is picking up traction the world over. Even within the European Union, France, Finland Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have either pulled the trigger on such laws or are in the process of doing so. Meanwhile, American lawmakers are trying to get off the ground a bill that would require large corporations involved in mining, manufacturing and the production of goods to conduct regular audits aimed at flagging forced labor in their operations.

Up north in Canada, a Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act is waiting to be considered by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. If greenlit, it could become law as early as January, requiring Canadian firms of a certain size to report on the measures they are taking to root out forced and child labor.

The Japanese government is also drawing up guidelines for “maximum efforts” against modern slavery in supply chains, though these appear to be on a voluntary basis with no penalties for non-compliance.