The UN report on human rights in Xinjiang is damning for China.  But what will be its impact?

The UN report on human rights in Xinjiang is damning for China. But what will be its impact?


The 22-year-old Australian, whose family is from the Xinjiang region in northwest China, woke up on Thursday to a flurry of WhatsApp messages about the report from other young Uyghurs around the world.

“Everyone is relieved that something like a report has come out… (but) the feeling of relief doesn’t come with complete relief,” said Yarmuhammad, a leader of an Australian Uyghur youth group.

“I feel even more overwhelmed, because we knew. Deep down we always knew these things were happening, these things were very real to us. A lot of people in our community have had first-hand experiences. Many of our family members have first-hand experiences.”

For years, members of the Uyghur diaspora and rights groups have pushed for a strong response within the United Nations system to repeated allegations of major human rights violations in Xinjiang. But member countries did not vote to establish an investigation into the allegations, which China has regularly pushed back with strong denials.
The report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was based on an assessment of these allegations over several years and made a strong statement: China has committed “serious human rights violations” against the Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim groups, which may amount to “crimes against humanity”.
“This is a long-awaited acknowledgment of the unimaginable suffering of the Uyghurs from the most authoritative human rights voice in the world,” said human rights lawyer Rayhan Asat, whose brother, imprisoned Uyghur entrepreneur Ekpar Asat, has been detained in Xinjiang since 2016.

“No government is above control and immune from responsibility. Despite China’s efforts to destroy or disarm it, this report by the UN body is an honest indictment China’s crimes against humanity,” said Asat, who lives in the United States.

China has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses in the region and on Wednesday denounced the UN report as “based on disinformation and fabricated lies by anti-China forces”.

There are also serious questions about the impact the report will have on the ground in China and on Beijing, where Chinese leader Xi Jinping – under whose leadership policies in Xinjiang were rolled out and who sought to cementing China’s role on the world stage – is expected to break tradition and enter a third term next month.

Uncertain stages

Many Uyghur and human rights groups rallied behind the report, calling for it to be a wake-up call to galvanize support for action within the UN – where the Assembly Assembly and the Human Rights Council are in session in less than two weeks.

“Governments should immediately launch an independent investigation and take all necessary steps to advance accountability and deliver the justice to which Uyghurs and others are entitled,” said John Fisher, deputy director of global advocacy at Human Rights Watch, on Thursday. RightsWatch.

Other nations, also called for follow-up, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said it would be “essential that all members of the Human Rights Council have the opportunity to formally discuss the findings of this report as soon as possible and that the perpetrators of these atrocities are held accountable.”

Prior to its release, advocates said they hoped a strong report could encourage more countries, like those on the Human Rights Council, to come forward in support of China’s accountability and build momentum to action within other United Nations agencies.

But actions taken within the UN depend on the will of member states, such as those on the Human Rights Council, who must vote to establish mechanisms such as formal human rights inquiries – and China wields considerable influence.

The report itself is not on the current agenda of the next session of the Human Rights Council, according to its website. It is also not on the agenda of the UN Security Council and would “probably not be discussed” in September, its president of the month, Nicolas de Rivière, said on Thursday.

Even if the states on the Human Rights Council were to ultimately vote for a formal investigation in the wake of the report, it has no power to compel China to allow UN investigators into its borders. . Compliance with the report’s other recommendations — such as releasing those arbitrarily detained and clarifying the whereabouts of missing persons — would be at Beijing’s discretion.

And China has already made its position clear on this.

“The suggestions made in the reports are entirely based on false information, crafted for political purposes, so China rightly rejects them,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said during a briefing. regular press release Thursday, when asked if China would take action. on the recommendations made.

Impact on China

It is clear that China is concerned about the implications of the report.

Her diplomats have repeatedly voiced their opposition to her release and have already issued several statements condemning her, including a 131-page rebuttal to the High Commissioner.

“The so-called assessment is an illegal document and a perverse product of the coercive diplomacy of the United States and some other Western forces,” a spokesperson for China’s Permanent Mission to the UN said Thursday.

But it remains to be seen whether the report or the resulting international pressure will have any impact on the ground in Xinjiang, where scholars and advocates allege oppression continues, despite now being absorbed by the prison system and transformed into an apparatus of forced labor. and a culture of monitoring.

The UN report also said there were indications of coercive labor, a move towards formal incarcerations and “invasive” surveillance in Xinjiang, and said it could not verify Chinese claims that its system of so-called “vocational education and training centers” was closed there.

In China’s heavily censored domestic media environment, there has been largely silence, with state media not covering the release of the report for domestic audiences.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivers a virtual speech at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2021 in New York City.

The report, ‘at a minimum’, is embarrassing for China on the international stage, especially just before the Party Congress, according to Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center, referring to the event future policy. where Xi is expected to assume his third term.

“China could deny the legality of all Western countries and media reporting on Xinjiang as biased. But now it is the UN, with all its credibility and legitimacy, saying the same thing. Beijing is cornered about it, and there’s very little he could say to refute,” she said.

The report deals a “negative blow” to China’s international image and could cast a shadow over Xi’s speech if he addresses the UN General Assembly this month, Yun said, but it will not necessarily affect the fundamental position of countries that have already chosen not to oppose China on this issue at the UN.

And it is “the concrete impact on the ground that remains to be seen”, she added.

For the communities of those directly affected, who think of their loved ones in the region, these questions are raw and immediate.

“At the end of the day, we are still relieved and satisfied that a report like this has come to light and that it enlightens China and helps us in our fight for human rights,” Yarmuhammad said. in Australia. “But there’s still a sinking feeling that it’s not going to help.”

CNN’s Hilary Whiteman, Nectar Gan and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.

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