A long-delayed report on Xinjiang was an important step forward, but it has critical omissions.
By Azeem Ibrahim, a columnist ar Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy
September 6, 2022
Early on Sept. 1, a computer screen shows a long-delayed report on human rights in China's Xinjiang region, released just minutes before U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet left her post. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
In the final minutes of Michelle Bachelet’s term as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, late at night, her office issued a report on the horrors of Xinjiang in China. The report was much delayed and vigorously opposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It was a slight surprise that the report came out at all. The United Nations had long delayed acting on the numerous reports of atrocities in Xinjiang, and Bachelet’s press conference after her visit had been much criticized for taking the Chinese viewpoint.
Its conclusions should not surprise readers who have been following the events in the territory since 2017. It collates a series of testimonials from former detainees in Xinjiang concentration camps, which predominately imprison those of the Muslim Uyghur minority. Its findings include confirmation that those imprisoned were tortured by being beaten, that women suffered “violations of reproductive rights through the coercive enforcement of family planning policies” (including sterilizations), and that camp inmates were used for forced labor—effectively enslaved—by state-run work programs.
This has been reported upon, and known, for many years. The report pointedly did not use this terminology, but Beijing’s actions have been recognized as a genocide by the legislatures of numerous countries, including the British, French, European, and Canadian parliaments.
Across the world, companies have been forced by campaigners to explain their supply chains and employment practices in Xinjiang, and the sourcing of raw material, especially cotton, has been scrutinized to see whether they are built upon state-run slavery.
The report goes some way to confirm these statements. But nowhere does it use the word “genocide.” Even the suggestion of the term is avoided, in favor of other descriptors, while material on forced sterilization in particular is minimized. This is a missed opportunity and an own goal.
The report is full of legalese, some of it necessary under the tricky legal structures of the United Nations, like the assessment that the CCP “may” have committed crimes against humanity, since the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) works under the belief that a final determination cannot be made without a legal process at, for example, the International Criminal Court. But some of it is decidedly not. The report is riddled with phraseology designed to dodge attribution of any kind. For example, complaints of the spottiness and inconclusiveness of the evidence—including two places where the report suggests that fragmentary evidence ‘makes it difficult’ to be conclusive—litter the work.
Part of this is a product of official Chinese lack of cooperation with the OHCHR. But it is also the result of consistent and insistent lobbying and campaigning from Chinese diplomats and officials, designed to prevent the report from ever seeing the light of day, and in the event that it did emerge, to water it down with vague statements of fact and an unwillingness to commit to stating unequivocal truths.
A recent report on the legal status of the treatment meted out to Uyghurs in Xinjiang produced by the New Lines Institute, of which I am the director of special initiatives, firmly concluded that the under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention, China bears “state responsibility” for committing genocide against the Uyghurs, and that China’s policies have evinced an “intent to destroy” the minority.
We conclude that, in clause after clause of the definition, China has knowingly and deliberately conducted genocidal actions and implemented genocidal policies. China has killed members of the group, it has caused bodily and mental harm to members of that group, it has imposed measures designed to prevent births, it has forcibly transferred Uyghur children to another group, and it has initiated policies intended to bring about the group’s “physical destruction.” This is a sustained campaign, and the United Nations must know this to be true.
The high commissioner’s report was built upon years of work and included trips to Xinjiang. The evidence could not have escaped its authors. It could have acknowledged all of this. It pointedly chose not to do so.
What could have been a significant moment of official U.N. recognition of a widespread, and well-evidenced, growing global consensus that China’s treatment of Uyghurs amounts to genocide under the Genocide Convention has instead become a moment at which the United Nations, even while attempting bravery five years after the events began, chose to duck the issue.
All this is noteworthy. So too is the process the report itself has traversed, and what the hurdles and compromises it has navigated say about the creeping Chinese influence on international institutions, many of which ought—in ordinary times—to be willing and able to criticize abuses like those perpetrated in Xinjiang with appropriate terminology.
When the report was finally issued, China called the whole thing a “farce” and the product of a conspiracy involving the Western allies. This is, of course, untrue. If anything could be called a conspiracy, that was the campaign mounted by the Chinese state and its international surrogates to mislead and confound U.N. officials, to prevent and waylay Bachelet herself, and her team, from going to Xinjiang, and finally, to keep the report locked in a metaphorical filing cabinet at the United Nations.
This was a sustained campaign felt across a variety of international institutions. Running it took organization and muscle. And it is something we must be wary of in the coming years and decades. This will happen again. Western leaders must understand this because they will surely have to confront it in the near term.
China’s diplomats operate in force and with confidence in the halls of the United Nations—stymieing the work of the Security Council and the individual U.N. agencies—including affiliates like the World Health Organization, which during the coronavirus pandemic found itself perpetually attached to the official Beijing line. China is the second-largest national contributor to U.N. funds after the United States. But China gets more for its money.
Chinese officials have significant and outsized influence on U.N. agencies. Since 2007, the undersecretary general for the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs has always been a Chinese national, in prime place to promote the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative not as Chinese economic expansionism but as international development.
The same officials have sought to minimize—and succeeded in minimizing—the ability to Uyghur representatives to address the United Nations, including preventing Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, from going to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
With U.N. officials like Bachelet successfully pressured to be put off and dissuaded while they held office, it is no surprise that these situations arise. This is outrageous and more than any nation ought to be able to demand.
But U.N. functionaries are in no position to out-muscle China, and they are so far unwilling to go so far as legislators with their own domestic audiences and their own mandates to call Chinese treatment of Uyghurs what it is—genocide—and to propose and execute efforts to do something in response.
To some degree, the fact that the report appeared at all is a miracle. The CCP wanted it suppressed, and yet here it is. Yet the conclusions of the report do not match up to the crimes. In the pandemic and post-pandemic period, the world has shown itself willing to notice and react to Chinese crimes in Xinjiang. But the weakness of the United Nations cannot be celebrated, even if, in very special circumstances, its bodies can contrive to do the mildest possible version of the right thing.