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A Chinese police officer guards the road near a “reeducation” camp in Yining, Xinjiang, September 4, 2018.  © 2018 Thomas Peter/Reuters

(New York) – United Nations members should press China’s government to end its crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims at a high-level event on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said today. Delegations should urge senior UN officials to press ahead with an investigation of mass detention, cultural persecution, and other serious abuses with or without access to Xinjiang.

The virtual UN event on May 12, 2021 is co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, the Global Justice Center, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the International Service for Human Rights, and the World Uyghur Congress, along with at least 18 countries led by Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“For years, Chinese officials have tried to cow UN member states into silence about the horrific abuses the authorities are inflicting on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “There is extraordinary momentum as governments around the world seek to hold the Chinese government accountable for human rights violations. The UN’s leadership should follow their example, condemn China’s massive abuses, and publicly report on the rights situation in Xinjiang.”

In April, Human Rights Watch and Stanford Law School’s Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic published a report detailing the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. The groups said that the UN Human Rights Council should create a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity and other abuses, identify officials responsible, and provide a road map for holding them accountable. They also urged the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang to keep the Human Rights Council regularly informed.

Last June, 50 UN experts called for an independent investigation into China’s abuses, including in Xinjiang.

UN member states have expressed growing alarm at Chinese government abuses in Xinjiang, making joint statements at the UN Human Rights Council and the Third Committee of the General Assembly, which focuses on human rights. In October 2020, 39 countries collectively voiced grave concern about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who is seeking a second term, has supported Bachelet’s request for access to Xinjiang and said that Beijing should respect human rights. But he has yet to publicly urge the Chinese government to end its persecution of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

The public UN event is aimed at highlighting abuses in Xinjiang and the need for greater UN attention to the plight of China’s Turkic Muslims. Beijing has waged an intimidation campaign to pressure governments not to attend.

On May 6, the Chinese mission to the UN sent a letter to other delegations in New York City, saying: “We request your mission NOT to participate in this anti-China event.” A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on May 10 that the event was “total blasphemy against the United Nations” and was using “human rights issues as a political tool to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

Despite dismissing allegations of abuses in Xinjiang as “sheer lies,” China has for more than two years refused to grant unrestricted access to Xinjiang to High Commissioner Bachelet and other UN experts. Human Rights Watch has said that Bachelet and Guterres should press ahead with a remote investigation and report their findings to UN member states.

UN delegations that take the floor at the event should speak out in support of a remote investigation, Human Rights Watch said. As shown by UN inquiries into abuses in North Korea and Myanmar, an investigation in Xinjiang can be comprehensive and credible even without the Chinese government’s cooperation. There is ample evidence of the impact of Beijing’s repressive policies in the public domain, including internal Chinese government documents and satellite imagery published by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and news outlets.

Some governments have adopted trade restrictions in response to credible complaints of forced labor by Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which supplies nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton. Chinese authorities have retaliated by encouraging consumers across China to boycott companies that have publicly expressed concerns about forced labor and other human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Human Rights Watch has also urged governments to impose travel bans and targeted individual sanctions on specific authorities implicated in serious abuses. These governments should also pursue domestic criminal cases under the concept of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows prosecution of grave crimes committed abroad.

“The Chinese government claims to be fighting terrorism in Xinjiang but few rights-respecting governments buy that flimsy cover story anymore,” Roth said. “UN delegations should demand a full UN investigation that uncovers the unvarnished truth about Beijing’s human rights record, starting with Xinjiang. The cost to China of continued abuses should be so high that it will have no choice but to change course.”


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