Last week the spokesperson for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said it would be only “a matter of a few weeks” until the release of a much-anticipated report showing “patterns” of Chinese government human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in the Xinjiang region.
For decades, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and others in Xinjiang have endured severe repression and discrimination, including enforced disappearances, pervasive surveillance, and constraints on practicing Islam. Prominent figures from those communities, such as the economist Ilham Tohti, are serving life sentences on baseless charges. In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government launched its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism,” which has spurred widespread and systematic abuses that amount to crimes against humanity including mass arbitrary detentions, torture, and cultural persecution.
UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, began requesting unfettered access to Xinjiang in 2018 with a view toward conducting an investigation. Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected the request. There are many tools for remote monitoring of human rights, however, and as reports from academics, journalists, and rights groups piled up, OHCHR quietly began its own assessment. Bachelet’s spokesperson noted that OHCHR had identified “patterns of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in institutions, coercive labor practices and erosion of social and cultural rights in general.”
In mid-2018, “Madina,” then in Kazakhstan, told Human Rights Watch about her separation from her family in Xinjiang, including her then 3 and 5-year-old children: “I don’t know where my kids are, where my parents are. The kids are innocent, and I haven’t committed any crimes.… this is too difficult to bear.”
Madina and her family should not have had to wait years, and they and millions of others from Xinjiang should not have to wait any longer. Every day that passes is another day in which Beijing ruthlessly oppresses Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. The Chinese government will do all it can to obstruct international investigations and genuine accountability. Bachelet’s forthcoming report will be an important reminder that no state is above the law.