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Former U.N. Human-Rights Chief Criticizes Omission of ‘Genocide Lens’ from Xinjiang Report


September 20, 2022

Ethnic Uyghur men work at a farming area near Lukqun town, in Xinjiang province October 30, 2013. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Former U.N. high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein criticized the organization’s recently released report on the Chinese government’s human-rights atrocities in Xinjiang for sidestepping the possibility that Beijing is carrying out genocide against Uyghurs. He made the comments during an Atlantic Council event yesterday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, where world leaders and U.N. officials this week are expected to largely overlook the widespread human-rights abuses.

Hussein’s successor, Michelle Bachelet, issued the long-awaited U.N. report just 13 minutes before her term closed at the end of August. The assessment detailed a series of human-rights abuses carried out by Chinese officials, such as mass arbitrary detention, torture, and rape, finding that these acts “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

While Hussein gave Bachelet “credit because [the report] wasn’t mandated by the Human Rights Council” and was, he said, put together at Bachelet’s discretion, he pointed out two “shortcomings.”

“I would have applied the genocide lens to it, using the lower threshold, where I would have said I could not exclude acts of genocide, particularly Article 2(b) of the genocide convention from having been perpetrated,” he said, specifying that that clause pertains to the perpetration of serious bodily harm with intent to destroy a group.

Crimes against humanity and genocide are generally viewed by lawyers as similarly egregious, though the label of genocide specifically describes deliberate efforts to eliminate a group in whole or in part.

Hussein said he also would have preferred that the report recommend that the U.N. Human Rights Council establish a specially designated panel to specifically investigate Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang. Similar investigative panels have unearthed grave human-rights abuses in Syria, North Korea, and elsewhere, and have given the findings the U.N.’s official imprimatur.

But Chinese diplomats had reportedly pressured Bachelet not to release the assessment at all. Although the report had reportedly been finalized in late 2021, Bachelet claimed that she needed to visit Xinjiang before making a final determination on the Chinese government’s campaign of repression. Bachelet ultimately visited Xinjiang in May but still refused to release the report, until she faced vocal public pressure from the U.S. and other governments.

As Beijing’s diplomats reviewed a draft of the report ahead of its publication, a section addressing the Chinese government’s forced sterilization “was watered down,” Politico EU reported, based on a conversation with a diplomat. Evidence that Chinese Communist Party officials have carried out a forced sterilization campaign against Uyghurs was critical to the January 2021 decision by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo to determine that the Chinese government has been carrying out genocide.

Still, Beijing was outraged by the publication of the report, and China’s top diplomat in Geneva said that his country would suspend all cooperation with the human-rights commissioner’s office over it.

A senior U.S. diplomat said during the Atlantic Council event that the U.N. report is consequential to sharing the truth about Beijing’s human-rights atrocities.

“The release of the High Commissioner’s report,” said Jeffrey Prescott, the deputy U.S. ambassador to the U.N., “reaffirms what we’ve all known to be true and what’s happening in Xinjiang: appalling crimes are being committed against Uyghurs and Turkic peoples in a brutal and systematic way. Full stop.”


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