China: UN report leaves no room to hide
The UN’s long-delayed human rights report on China has finally been published, and it offers damning confirmation of the Chinese government’s systematic human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. The timing will be irritating for Chinese President Xi Jinping, seeking a seamless confirmation of a third term when his party meets in October. His government fought tooth and nail to try to stop the report’s release and then mounted a swift backlash. But the reality of what China is doing in Xinjiang can no longer be denied. Now the UN’s new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, will have to prove his worth by ensuring the report’s findings are followed by action.
Many wondered if it would ever see the light of day. But on 31 August, just minutes before the end of the term of United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, her office published its long-delayed report on the Chinese government’s human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. It came almost a year late: it was supposedly being finalised last September. Given the circumstances, it must be encouraging that it came out at all.
A cover-up operation
Civil society long pressured for the report’s release, as part of its efforts to hold the Chinese state to account for its widespread violations of the rights of Xinjiang’s Muslim-majority population. These include forced labour, mass detention, forced sterilisation, separation of children from their families and the suppression of religious practices and symbols. The Chinese government tries both to deny the scale of its actions and justify them on the grounds of preventing extremism and terrorism. Several states have concluded its actions amount to genocide.
The fact that the reality, scale and severity of China’s abuses have now been acknowledged at the highest level matters.
With people in Xinjiang systematically denied the right to speak out about their oppression, human rights groups have done their best to compensate, working to document abuses and make them known to the world. They have come up against the Chinese state’s evident willingness to use its power to downplay criticisms and spread disinformation, echoed by allied states connected to Beijing by relationships of economic subservience. In this unequal battle, they have looked to the UN human rights system to help bring accountability.
But they found only a partial ally in Bachelet, who seemed to think the negotiation skills honed in democratic Chile could be put to use when dealing with China: that quiet, private words could somehow unlock a measure of progress from China’s repressor-in-chief, President Xi Jinping.
Bachelet long sought to visit Xinjiang, but the Chinese government resisted. There was no way it was going to let her see the industrial scale of its repression. So when the visit finally went ahead this May, alarm bells rang.
The visit was, predictably, carefully stage-managed by the Chinese government. Bachelet wasn’t allowed to speak to a single one of the region’s estimated one million detainees or their families. The government used the visit as an opportunity to spread disinformation about its actions in Xinjiang. Bachelet’s statement on the visit balanced criticism with praise and repeated China’s false characterisation of its vast detention camps as ‘vocational education and training centres’. All that resulted was an agreement to hold an annual meeting on human rights.
Happy with its publicity coup, China then did all it could to try to stop the delayed report coming out, while civil society and multiple UN human rights experts called on Bachelet to release it. Bachelet faced pressure from democratic states at the most recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, but China pushed hard in the opposite direction, circulating a letter to diplomatic missions in Geneva urging allies to argue against publication. China claimed the publication of the report would undermine the credibility of the human rights system – exactly what civil society made clear would be the effect of not publishing it.
A victory procession spoiled
Stakes are high for President Xi. His intensifying campaign of repression isn’t limited to Xinjiang: it includes an all-out drive to extinguish Hong Kong’s democracy movement, intensifying hostility towards Taiwan and a domestic crackdown on popular culture.
The intent seems to be to extinguish all forms of identification apart from loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and its particular form of patriotism, based on a monocultural Chinese identity. Even the long-cherished pursuit of economic growth is seemingly subservient to this totalitarian agenda.
Xi’s aim is to secure a third presidential term and consolidate his status as one of Communist China’s historically pre-eminent leaders. Of course he doesn’t need to worry about anything as inconvenient as a democratic election: the decisive event he faces is the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress, held every five years and recently scheduled to begin on 16 October. The meeting is expected to endorse a third term, Xi having abolished the two-term limit in 2018, and pack key bodies with Xi allies.
Although his coronation is a foregone conclusion, Xi wants to ensure there are no clouds on the horizon. The report is an ill-timed inconvenience, his inability to suppress it an irritating confirmation that even his powers have limits.
Time to face the truth
Xi was right to be worried. The report stops short of using the term ‘genocide’ and is far more diplomatic and cautious in its language than the situation demands. But it goes further than the UN has gone before, and way beyond anything Bachelet said following her visit.
The report finds there is credible evidence of torture, sexual and gender-based violence, forced birth control, arbitrary and discriminatory detention and discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds. It concludes that these may constitute crimes under international law, particularly crimes against humanity.
Civil society knew all this already and has been reporting it for some time. But the fact that the reality, scale and severity of China’s abuses have now been acknowledged at the highest level matters. What has happened is incredibly rare: one of the world’s biggest powers has been called out in a UN human rights report.
Predictably, furious backlash followed. China accused the UN of pedalling disinformation and outright lies for political ends. It published its own worthless shadow report, sticking to its excuses about preventing extremism and terrorism.
Civil society is expectant to see what happens next. One of the reasons Bachelet only served a single term was the ongoing controversy over China, and she made sure she wouldn’t be around to have to deal with the report’s consequences. That task falls to her replacement, recently announced as Austrian diplomat Volker Türk.
A seasoned UN insider, Türk was appointed through an opaque process that fell far short of the transparent and consultative approach civil society urged. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres likely views Türk as a safe pair of hands, but he is walking into a demanding role at a controversial time. Civic space is under attack and states like China are pushing back against universal human rights norms and trying to redefine human rights to their advantage.
As Türk takes the helm, China is his acid test. Human rights groups will be looking for early indications that he is willing to engage with them, hear their voices – and, through them, the voices of the many experiencing repression who can’t speak out – and take action.
The UN’s report on China must be a turning point in two ways. It should mark a new era of holding the world’s most powerful states to account when they commit human rights violations. And as far as China is concerned, it must be followed up. The UN Human Rights Council should hold a proper discussion of its findings, then set up an independent mechanism to monitor and report on China, given the ongoing nature of its abuses.
China will inevitably oppose any further steps with all its might, using the considerable influence it has developed within the UN, and will mobilise allied states to fight on its behalf. It will seek to exploit a key flaw of the UN Human Rights Council: many of its 47 member states are themselves serial human rights violators.
The prospects for accountability will depend on the determination of the Council’s democratic states to stand up for rights, and the new High Commissioner’s willingness to act as the true human rights champion the world needs.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The UN Human Rights Council should hold a special session on the report’s findings and commit to establishing an independent monitoring mechanism on China’s human rights abuses.
Democratic states should continue to push for China’s violations in Xinjiang to be investigated as genocide.
The new UN High Commissioner should commit to enhancing civil society’s role in UN human rights processes.