UN report cites serious human rights violations in Xinjiang but ultimately fails the Uyghurs

Detainees at a re-education camp in Xinjiang. Photo WeChat/Xinjiang Juridical Administration

“Serious human rights violations” have been committed in Xinjiang and the arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghurs “may constitute…crimes against humanity” according to a controversial UN report that the Chinese government has been trying to quash.

The report also concludes that allegations of patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention, as well as allegations of individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence are “credible”.

What is also abundantly clear is that the report does not make mention of the word “genocide”, something that has left many campaigners unsatisfied.

The UN report goes so far as to push any mention of “suspicious deaths” occurring inside Xinjiang’s re-education centres into a footnote, saying that despite being presented with allegations on these by interviewees it had “not been possible to verify [them] to the requisite standard”. Restricting the ability of the UN to verify claims of human rights abuses is an effective method by which states, such as China, can effectively game the UN’s investigative process. By ensuring the body cannot access the evidence it needs, China can ostensibly shape what the UN can say without exerting any overt control or interference. 

Last month it was revealed that the Chinese mission to the UN was lobbying to prevent the release of the report into human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The publication of the report, first commissioned in 2018, had been repeatedly delayed after having been completed in September 2021. Under tremendous pressure from other UN member states, the report was finally made available on 31 August in the last minutes of UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s term. 

The release of the report has not been welcomed by the Chinese government. In its response to its publication, China’s mission to the UN said: “Based on the disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces and out of presumption of guilt, the so-called ‘assessment’ distorts China’s laws and policies, wantonly smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs”. 

The attempt to block the report’s publication may come as a shock to some but this incident is only the most recent attempt by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to silence Uyghurs both within and outside China and to discredit those who try to shine a light on their treatment. In the past, the UN has abdicated from its duty to challenge this global campaign against the Uyghurs. The publication of the report is a notable improvement on the UN’s poor track record. But the controversy surrounding the report’s release has left few critics of the UN optimistic about the ability of the organisation to defend Uyghurs in the future. 

Michelle Bachelet meets Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2014, photo: Gobierno de Chile

The release of the Xinjiang report reflects a significant departure from the UN’s traditional soft-touch approach to managing its relationship with China. For example, earlier in 2022 Michelle Bachelet became the first UN High Commissioner to visit China in 17 years. While Bachelet praised China’s progress in labour standards and gender rights, she mentioned only in passing the treatment of Uyghurs, which according to credible reports, includes mass enslavement and systemic rape. Bachelet later admitted that her access to Uyghurs was severely restricted, ostensibly because of COVID-19 regulations, but to many her relative silence appeared to validate the Chinese government’s narrative surrounding events in Xinjiang. After her visit, The Global Times, a Chinese newspaper known for inevitably toeing the government line, ran an opinion piece praising Bachelet for changing her perspective on Xinjiang. The piece celebrated Bachelet’s adoption of CCP terminology – highlighting her use of “the term ‘Vocational Education and Training Centre’ instead of the so-called ‘re-education camp’” –  and attributed her much-publicised decision not to run for a second term as High Commissioner to pressure she faced after speaking out in favour of China’s counter-terrorism measures. 

Bachelet appeared to accept at face value claims that the re-education camps had “been dismantled” and appeared overly optimistic about “China’s stated aim of ensuring quality developed closely linked to developing the rule of law and respect for human rights”. While she expressed some half-hearted concern about the “lack of judicial oversight” in Xinjiang and mentioned Uyghurs she had met before her trip to China who had lost contact with their relatives, her condemnation of the treatment and mass detention of Uyghurs across the region was decidedly muted. Instead she praised China’s “tremendous achievements” in labour and gender rights, an insult to the victims of slave labour and sexual abuse in the camps. She concluded that “there is important work being done to advance gender equality, the rights of LGBTQI people or people with disabilities and all the people among other [groups]”. 

China’s mission to the UN now says that the content of the report “is “entirely contradictory to the formal statement issued by [Bachelet]” following her visit. Just like the Global Times, China’s mission is falsely pointing to Bachelet’s Xinjiang trip as an exoneration of the CCP.

Bachelet herself emphasised that her visit “was not an investigation”, which begs the question why it happened in the first place. All her soft touch approach achieved was to grant the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a significant PR win.

UN whistleblower Emma Reilly

To understand why UN officials like Bachelet have traditionally been so cautious about criticising China, Index spoke to Emma Reilly (left), an Irish former human rights officer at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Reilly was fired in 2021 after blowing the whistle in 2017, revealing how the UN had for years been passing the names of Uyghurs set to testify before the UN to the Chinese government. Reilly explained to Index that Eric Tistounet from the OHCHR told concerned staff that “not giving them over would further Chinese distrust of the UN”.

One of the names on the list was Dolkun Isa who now resides in Germany. After the UN passed over his name to the Chinese authorities, his remaining family members who still resided in Xinjiang received a visit from the police. His parents later died in a re-education camp in circumstances that are still unclear. Reilly told Index that another person the UN exposed without their knowledge died upon their return to Xinjiang. 

After the UN issued a medical report about Reilly, the Swiss police visited Reilly’s house and prevented her from attending a meeting about the issue she had exposed. In doing so, the UN effectively transformed the Swiss police into a tool of CCP censorship. 

A tribunal was initiated to investigate Reilly’s case with the assistance of Rowan Downing QC, a former President of the UN Dispute Tribunal and an international war crimes judge. When it became clear that Downing’s ruling would not be favourable towards the UN, he was removed from his position. Downing compared this move to a coup

Reilly told Index that the UN’s general reluctance to criticise the CCP is based on the misguided assumption that significant concessions need to be made to maintain a friendly relationship with the Chinese government. According to Reilly, it is commonly believed at the UN that increased engagement with the Chinese government will lead it to internalise global norms of human rights. But the opposite appears to be the case. In fact, the Chinese government has proven itself to be a powerful norm maker of its own as it becomes increasingly assertive in the UN. 

Rosemary Foot’s book “China, the UN and Human Protection” seeks to explain the paradox of a China that is significantly more prominent in the UN system yet increasingly resistant to many of its central tenets. Most significantly, the Chinese government has sought to bolster the importance of sovereignty and undermine the universal nature of human rights. 

For example, China had only used its security council veto power six times before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. It then used it seven times to block resolutions condemning the Assad regime. The Chinese government believes that the treatment of Syrians, Uyghurs and other groups should be treated as “internal affairs” and economic growth should be seen as the principal means of improving human rights. As Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, recently wrote, “if Beijing had its way, human rights would be reduced to a measurement of growth in gross domestic product”. 

In her discussion with Index, Reilly expressed dismay that her case had received the most attention from right-leaning outlets sceptical of the UN project. Other outlets tended to focus on the treatment of whistleblowers rather than the behaviour she was uncovering and the necessity of systemic reform. Like many other UN whistleblowers, Reilly remains committed to the UN project and wants it changed, not abandoned. 

Disempowering the UN (like the Trump administration tried to do by making significant cuts after its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was rejected) will only empower the Chinese government to fill the vacuum. But the typical relationship the UN has had with the Chinese government swings the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. The UN must not allow itself to become a tool for China to censor its opponents but starving the UN of funds, undermining its mandate, and expecting it to reform is not a tenable solution that protects universal rights and targeted groups, including Uyghurs both in China and elsewhere.

Given the UN’s poor track record of endangering critics of the CCP, does the release of the Xinjiang report suggest the arrival of the kind of systemic reform that Reilly and others have called for?

Critics are sceptical that this recent development (while welcome) reflects a newly assertive United Nations. The next step would be for an independent investigation to be conducted into events in Xinjiang.  Calls for such an investigation have also come from within the UN system after 50 UN human rights experts urged the Human Rights Council in 2020 to establish an independent UN mandate to monitor and report on human rights violations in China. According to the OHCHR’s own statement on this recommendation “unlike over 120 States, the Government of China has not issued a standing invitation to UN independent experts to conduct official visits.” However, two years later and progress has been glacial. Considering that the release of a report took almost three years once it was completed and was only possible after overwhelming pressure from other member states, any next step looks like an insurmountable challenge requiring consistent international solidarity and pressure at a time of growing international tension. The Chinese government cannot exert total influence over the UN to silence all of its critics but as demonstrated by the delays of the Xinjiang report, the UN process remains too easy for human rights abusers to impede.

Reilly remains critical of the UN. Now that the UN has officially recognised in its report that the CCP carries out “reprisals against Uyghur and other predominately Muslim minorities abroad in connection with their advocacy, and their family members in [Xinjiang]”, their continued smear campaign against her and refusal to condemn the policy she exposed is an increasingly untenable position.  

There is also the question of how permanent the UN’s apparent change of strategy will be. It is notable that Bachelet only felt capable of releasing the report upon her departure from office when she would not have to face the consequences of her decision. Perhaps that now Bachelet is gone, her brief experiment with explicitly calling out the CCP’s human rights abuses will be replaced with business as usual.

Meanwhile, the global campaign to target Uyghurs both within and outside China continues. Earlier this year, Index published a landmark report examining how the CCP has externalised its censorship and intimidation of Uyghurs even to those who have managed to escape to Europe in search of freedom and security. As highlighted by Reilly’s brave decision to blow the whistle, the CCP will use every mechanism and lever at its disposal to enforce its propaganda and target its perceived adversaries. Even though they now reside in Europe, Uyghurs continue to receive threats as do their families still living in Xinjiang. This report highlighted the lengths the CCP would go to strengthen its narrative and censor those brave enough to speak out, irrespective of where they are. It also revealed the inadequate response of European states to respond to this threat. Without a robust response, the CCP is emboldened to continue exporting its message to other countries and through international bodies like the UN. 

If the UN has only just reached the stage of officially recognising that this years long campaign is actually taking place, let alone taking active measures to stop it, who can Uyghurs rely on?

[Index made repeated requests to the United Nations for comment on this article but no replies were received at time of publication.]

To learn more about the censorship of Uyghurs in Europe, read Index’s Banned by Beijing report “China’s Long Arm”: https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2022/02/landmark-report-shines-light-on-chinese-long-arm-repression-of-ex-pat-uyghurs/ 

Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Index is once again partnering with the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. It takes place from 17-25 March and screenings will be both digital and in-person – at the Barbican in London.

In partnership with the festival, we are partnering on the screenings of the following films relating to freedom of expression:

Myanmar Diaries – a film made by a clandestine collective of citizen journalists which documents the human rights abuses and life under military rule in Myanmar. This film is the winner of HRW’s Tony Elliot award for courage in filmmaking.

Eternal Spring – a film which looks at the brave actions of a group of individuals to challenge censorship in China by hijacking the local TV station to combat China’s misinformation campaign against religious practitioners. The film shows the life and death circumstances people have to take to stand up against media censorship.

Boycott – a film which looks at laws in the US that attempt to stifle freedom of speech. In this documentary, one media publication is asked to sign an affadavit claiming they will not boycott products of Israel as a condition of their funding.

When: 17 to 25 March

Where: Barbican, London and online. Find out more about the festival here

Landmark report shines light on Chinese “long arm” repression of ex-pat Uyghurs

The report, compiled over months of detailed research and gathering of personal testimony, shows how the “long arm” of the Chinese Communist Party is silencing ethnic Uyghurs.

Countless Uyghurs who have managed to escape China in search of freedom and security have instead found themselves threatened and silenced by threats to friends and family still living in China.

From being persecuted in China, they find themselves hounded in Europe. Meanwhile, Uyghurs in Xinjiang are increasingly being pressured to inform on friends and relatives living abroad. 

As the Uyghur Tribunal recently concluded, genocide, human rights abuses and torture are taking place against the Uyghur population of China. This intelligence gathering drive by the CCP is part of a concerted effort to compile a “global register” of information to assist the authorities in China to clamp down further on them.

Jessica Ní Mhainín, policy and campaigns manager at Index on Censorship, said: “Today’s report shows the shocking reach of the Chinese government’s ‘long arm’, and also shines a light on the depths to which they will stoop in their concerted campaign against the Uyghur people.

“It has been widely accepted that there is a genocide taking place against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. What today’s report from Index on Censorship demonstrates is that the CCP is now taking this campaign into countries around the world.

“Most of the approximately 12,500 Uyghurs that reside in the UK and EU still have friends or family members in Xinjiang. Speaking out or reporting CCP-backed threats could put their loved ones at an increased risk of internment, torture or worse.”

Download the report here.

Will athletes risk the wrath of Beijing to stand up for human rights?

Athlete protest has been almost as common a feature of the Olympic Games as elite sporting achievement since its modern inception at the turn of the 20th century.

At the 1906 Games, Irish triple jumper Peter O’Connor protested his registration as a British athlete – Ireland did not have a national Olympic committee at the time – by scaling the flagpole during the award ceremony and waving an Irish flag.

The official recognition of the Games as a platform for protest happened in 1955 when then president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Avery Brundage wrote guidelines into the Olympic bylaws. These stated that Olympic host cities had to ensure “no political demonstrations will be held in the stadium or other sport grounds, or in the Olympic Village, during the Games, and that it is not the intention to use the Games for any other purpose than for the advancement of the Olympic Movement”.

This did not stop perhaps the best known of all Olympic protests – the Black Power demonstrations at the 1968 Mexico Olympics when American 200-metre athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved hands in salute during the US national anthem.

Further changes to athletes’ rights to express themselves were codified in a 1975 update to the Olympic Charter in rule 55, which simply said, “Every kind of demonstration or propaganda, whether political, religious or racial, in the Olympic areas is forbidden”.

The IOC has since moved away from this total ban and now declares itself to be “fully supportive of freedom of expression”.

And yet the most recent version of the rule on athlete expression, now known as Rule 50, state that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. It does though allow for expressing views outside Olympic sites and venues or before and after the Games. Athletes are also permitted to express their views in press conferences, during interviews and through their own social media channels.

In 2020 IOC member Dick Pound wrote: “Everyone has the right to political opinion and the freedom to express such opinions. The IOC fully agrees with that principle and has made it absolutely clear that athletes remain free to express their opinions in press conferences, in media interviews and on social media. But, in a free society, rights may come with certain limitations. Rule 50 restricts the occasions and places for the exercise of such rights. It does not impinge on the rights themselves.”

Athletes recognised just how much of a platform the games give them to express themselves, particularly with the global, 24-hour coverage afforded to it in modern times. As a result, they’ve always pushed back against bans.  For example, at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, many athletes and teams took the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement within Olympic venues.

So what can we expect from Beijing?

When China last hosted the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, it was a dramatically different country. One continuity was the human rights situation and there were protests organised by activists about human rights abuses in Tibet during those Games. Athletes however kept quiet.

A huge amount has changed in the 14 years since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Athletes may feel very tempted to speak out. The wider world has been made aware of the Uyghur genocide, involving sterilisation, forced education in detention centres, the disappearance of activists and threats around the world against those who do speak out on the atrocities.

China has also cracked down in Hong Kong, effectively ending the one country, two systems policy. It has introduced the national security law, closed down independent media outlets and jailed political opponents.

Meanwhile, its other abuses – such as those in Tibet – have not gone away. Nor has concern over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared late last year after she accused a top official of sexual misconduct.

At the Australian Open in January, athletes did use their platform to speak out about Peng Shuai. It would stand to reason the same would happen in Beijing. And yet China is not Australia.

While the rules governing freedom of expression at the Games have been loosened in the wake of athlete protests, Chinese officials have done little to ease concerns over athletes expressing themselves in Beijing. In mid-January, the deputy director of the Beijing organising committee Yang Shu said that “Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected.” She then added, “Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”

Basically, speak out and risk prison. It’s a high price to pay.

Then there’s the question of technology. Unlike 2008 when social media was in its infancy, China will be very worried about the potential for protest to reach a much wider audience than before. Anyone making comments on social media from inside the country will be required to communicate with the world through Chinese telecoms companies.

In December, VOA News reported that China has committed to switch off its Great Firewall for athletes and accredited media in the Olympic Village, competition and noncompetition venues, and contracted media hotels.

Just because the Firewall is being relaxed does not mean what athletes say over social media is not being monitored.

One particular concern for athletes at the Games is the requirement to download an app called MY2022 before arriving in China. The app is ostensibly there to maintain a closed loop system relating to Covid measures. However, researchers at Canada’s Citizen Lab says the app is not secure, leading a number of national Olympic committees, including the USA, Canada, the Netherlands and the UK, to advise their athletes to leave their personal devices at home.

In a statement shared with athletes, Canada’s national committee wrote, “We’ve reminded all Team Canada members that the Olympic Games present a unique opportunity for cybercrime and recommended that they be extra diligent at Games, including considering leaving personal devices at home, limiting personal information stored on devices brought to the Games, and to practice good cyber-hygiene at all times.”

The app also has a number of other features beyond health, such as AI-powered translation and weather, and real-time messaging and audio. Citizen Lab says it also includes features that allow users to report “politically sensitive” content while the Android version includes a censorship keyword list.

The organisation said, “We discovered a file named illegalwords.txt which contains a list of 2,442 keywords generally considered politically sensitive in China. However, despite its inclusion in the app, we were unable to find any functionality where these keywords were used to perform censorship. It is unclear whether this keyword list is entirely inactive, and, if so, whether the list is inactive intentionally.”

The list includes terms such as Xi Jinping, Tiananmen riot, Dalai Lama, Xinjiang and forced demolition. Citizen Lab says that many of the terms are in Uyghur or Tibetan scripts, something that is “not common” in other censored apps such as WeChat and YY.

It is highly likely that one or more principled athletes will use the Beijing Games to make a stand over Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong. The question is whether, with the world watching, China will dare to take them to task.

CCP censorship extends well beyond the Olympic Games, including the targeting of Chinese minorities overseas. Index has investigated the extent to which the Chinese government is using its technological and economic leverage, combined with cultural and diplomatic networks, to intimidate, silence, and discredit Uyghurs in Europe. The report – China’s Long Arm: How Uyghurs are being Silenced in Europe – will be published on 10 February 2022. 

Get a free ticket to the launch event here, titled Banned By Beijing: How can Europe stand up for Uyghurs? After the event, check out our website’s Banned By Beijing page to read the report.”