UN Uyghur report leaves no room for denial and no excuse for inaction

On 31 August, minutes before the end of her four-year term, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet released a much-anticipated report on abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China. While the report was long overdue and lacked strength in certain areas, its release following a four-year investigation is a positive development celebrated by victims of Xinjiang’s human rights crisis, as well as scholars, journalists and advocates around the world who have for years sought to pour sunlight on the issue.

The investigation found that the Chinese party-state’s repression of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities ‘may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity’. ‘May’ is the strongest language the UN can use until the International Criminal Court is able to test whether the widespread human rights abuses, arbitrary detention and torture—which the report concludes have indeed taken place—constitute crimes against humanity. This is near impossible because China is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and therefore its alleged crimes don’t fall under the court’s jurisdiction.

The investigation established few new facts but focused on confirming the accounts of abuses already demonstrated to a very high level of certainty by others, including ASPI.

For years, ASPI researchers and others have gathered evidence of mass arbitrary detentions aggravated by torture and sexual violence; forced labour schemes; persecution based on ethnicity and religious beliefs; coercive birth-control policies; and pervasive surveillance and harassment of ordinary citizens.

Despite the relatively narrow scope of the research in Bachelet’s report, it strongly verifies the nature of human rights abuses in Xinjiang in relation to arbitrary detention since the 2017 crackdown and frames them within statements and admissions made by Chinese state sources. The heavy use of primary sources, and the legitimacy given to the report by the UN, make this report exceptionally hard to dispute. Ultimately, the value of an independent report by the most senior international human rights office lies in having the UN’s imprimatur on the now unassailable conclusions of industrial-scale human rights abuses, leaving no room for censorship and denial, and no excuses for a lack of concrete action.

The UN report cites Chinese government documents, statements and statistics, as well as scores of first-hand accounts. It also draws on extensive research by reputable organisations including ASPI’s Xinjiang Data Project, a three-year research project by a multidisciplinary team of scholars, journalists, cyber and satellite imagery experts. The Xinjiang Data Project includes a comprehensive imagery analysis on more than 300 detention sites, a ground-breaking report on systematic Uyghur forced labour and its reach into global supply chains, and an organisational chart that attributes responsibility to every government agency that has carried out abuse in Xinjiang. The project has also studied the Chinese government’s efforts to destroy Uyghur cultural heritage, its propaganda strategies and its coercive birth-control tactics.

In recent months, civil society groups had increasingly chastised Bachelet, particularly after she made what was widely derided as a Potemkin-style visit to Xinjiang in May that gave her nothing like the ‘unfettered’ access she had demanded. Bachelet later admitted feeling under ‘tremendous pressure’ from all sides over whether to publish her report. The Chinese government attempted to bury the report until the last moment, and scholars and rights groups feared that it would be sanitised to the point of inefficacy. After the report’s release, a retiring French diplomat who’s familiar with the issue reportedly said that a section on forced sterilisation was watered down in the final hours before publication.

While some members of the Uyghur diaspora appear to have found vindication and relief in the release of Bachelet’s report, others say it came too late and amounts to too little. The United States, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France and Lithuania have previously branded the Uyghur human rights crisis a ‘genocide’, though Australia has stopped short of using that label, judging it a matter for a court to determine. A comprehensive 2021 report by Human Rights Watch also demonstrated that ‘crimes against humanity’ were being committed in Xinjiang.

Australia has condemned the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs as ‘severe human rights abuses’ or crimes against humanity.

Late last year, the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent and non-binding panel of lawyers and academics in the UK, concluded that human rights abuses in Xinjiang amounted to genocide.

It is worth noting that Chinese government documents (discovered and authenticated by ASPI and German researcher Adrian Zenz separately) refer to state-sanctioned abuses in Xinjiang as being based on a five-year plan that began in 2017 and was consolidated by 2022. Given that the Chinese party-state has shown a tendency to alter behaviour following international condemnation—for instance, some detainees were released shortly after international media attention—earlier intervention from a UN body or governments could arguably have made a greater impact.

Nonetheless, civil groups and members of the Uyghur diaspora appear hopeful that Bachelet’s report will galvanise international organisations, individual states and the private sector.

One likely immediate impact the report could have is in its recommendation that nations not deport Uyghurs to China given the conditions of torture the report verifies.

Rights groups and legal scholars have renewed calls for major international bodies to follow up on Bachelet’s report. Human Rights Watch has suggested formally presenting Bachelet’s report to the UN Human Rights Council as a matter of priority.

The UN’s International Labour Organization might continue pushing for an advisory mission (which was dismissed by the Chinese government earlier this year). One of Bachelet’s specific recommendations is that China cooperate with the ILO and allow in a technical advisory mission.

Lawyers who accuse Beijing of crimes and genocide have continued to call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Xinjiang atrocities, most recently in June 2022, despite China not being a member of the court.

Bachelet’s report should serve as a stern reminder for businesses to improve the transparency and accountability of their own supply chains, and for governments to strengthen their regulatory environments to prevent copouts and workarounds. The report calls on businesses to enhance their due diligence on human rights and to report on their progress transparently. As of the end of 2021, more than a third of Australia’s largest listed companies failed at modern slavery disclosures, showing poor understanding of their own supply chains.

Earlier this year, the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act (legislation citing ASPI’s Uyghurs for sale report) took effect in the US, prohibiting the import of goods made with forced labour. This law is set to cause profound changes across the garment, manufacturing, energy and agriculture sectors at a time when supply chains are already experiencing frequent disruption.

While Australia doesn’t yet have comparable legislation, it will likely have to adopt a harder line against forced labour amid urging from the US and a global trend towards stricter measures against modern slavery.

Bachelet’s key recommendations for the Chinese government—that the party-state change its laws and practices to ensure abuses are not repeated, sign up to relevant international conventions and cooperate as necessary with international bodies—are unlikely to be met without continued international pressure and scrutiny.

It is up to the international community to keep the pressure on.