The main dispute of the Uighurs human rights report in China

On the evening of the last day 31 of August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published its long-awaited report on Xinjiang and the Uighur issue. Titled “OHCHR Assessment of Human Rights Concerns in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China”, the document contains 48 pages in English separated into eight chapters. In addition to accusations, questions and recommendations, it is interesting to see the context of its publication and what probably ends up being its main dispute with the Chinese government.

First, it is interesting to note that the then High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, authorized the publication of the report literally thirteen minutes before her term ended. She had already announced that she would not seek a second term in office. The occupying person is appointed by the UN Secretary General and needs to be approved by the General Assembly. Political pressures make it virtually impossible to approve a name that does not have the support of the five powers of the Security Council. That is, what, or who, made Bachelet give up a second term and publish the report in the dark?

The truth is that we don’t know. Some say it was Chinese pressure, pushing against the report. Others say it would have been a complaint from the US and UK over the supposedly “taking it easy” report. Even Bachelet herself writes her memoirs, something like that, is up to the customer’s taste. The accusation of “taking it easy” is due to the fact that the report does not use, at any time, the word genocide, the accusation made by the US against China. The term is also used in some statements made by parliaments, such as that of Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.


There are two clarifications here. First, genocide is a crime typified by the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948. Criteria need to be met for this charge to be made. Second, the report is not a judgment, it could not be exhaustive about a crime like genocide. In fact, the report, not having the authority or legal power of a trial, points out indications and makes recommendations. It speaks of “credible evidence” of torture and other human rights abuses, and that this set of actions possibly constitute crimes against humanity.

In addition to torture, the document speaks of arbitrary detention, separation of families, suspicions about the work relationships of these people, forced medication, gender violence and violations of reproductive rights. The document can be read in full in English. A Chinese response to the report was also published, with 131 pages. China rejects the accusations and also claims that several of them are fabrications made by the US and rival governments of China, in a tactic that the Chinese government calls “detaining China for the destabilization of Xinjiang”.

The Xinjiang region is the largest in China, with about one-sixth of the country’s total territory. Its population of about 26 million inhabitants is divided between different ethnic groups. According to Chinese census data, 51% are Uighurs, 34, 3% are Han and 6.9% are Kazakhs, with other groups with less representation. The region is rich in mineral resources, including hydrocarbons and lithium, as well as being an important land border. There, China borders Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan.


For this reason, Xinjiang offers important land routes and connection with Central Asia, being essential in the Chinese “New Silk Road”. Because of this geographical importance, China accuses Western powers of wanting to influence the Chinese presence there. Another issue is the Turkic identity. The Uighurs are a Turkic people and some groups advocate independence from an East Turkestan. This Turkic cultural identity meant that the Republic of Turkey, at times, provided greater support to the Uighurs. There is a large Uighur community in Turkey.

It is also this geopolitical importance that makes China argue that it needs to fight Muslim extremism and radicalism in Xinjiang. The Chinese defense document lists several episodes of violence in the region ahead of what China calls anti-terrorism laws. Mainly, China argues that all its actions are backed by its laws and guided by the Chinese constitution, and that the fight against terrorism is itself a protection of human rights. Of course, this column takes a very condensed approach to the two documents.

Sovereignty of the State

It comes to the point that, although it is certainly not the most compelling subject for headlines and engagement on social media, is legally the most sensitive. What the UN report does is precisely criticize Chinese anti-terrorism laws. According to the OHCHR document, Chinese laws are “vague” and intentionally open to interpretation, allowing many acts and conduct to be classified as indicators of extremism and suspected criminality.

The report notes that some of these supposed indications may just be “the manifestation of personal choice in the practice of Islamic religious beliefs or legitimate expression of opinion”. Accusations of extremism can subsequently result in arbitrary arrests and it is reasonable to conclude that a “pattern of arbitrary arrests” took place between 2017 and 2019. It also states that many of those interned in vocational education and training institutions, which the US calls “concentration camps”, were not properly informed and could not consent to their internment.

Again, the defense is that it did everything backed by its own laws. The crux of the issue becomes, then, the coexistence between domestic laws and the sovereignty of a State with international investigation. The OHCHR report even explains that China is signatory of several agreements in the area of ​​Human Rights and that would possibly be violating these same texts. The example of Xinjiang becomes an example of how cloudy it is to distinguish the protection of Human Rights from geopolitical disputes, but also of the international community’s difficulty in monitoring and demand changes before the sovereignty of the State.

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