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Why China’s Crimes in Xinjiang Cannot Go Unpunished

For years, China denied committing human rights violations in Xinjiang, denounced its accusers and tried to block a United Nations investigation. Now we know why.

The U.N.’s long-delayed findings, finally released late last month, confirmed the most chilling allegations by ethnic Uyghurs: Systematic mass internment, disappearances, torture, cultural and religious erasure and political indoctrination of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities.

The U.N.’s human right office, which compiled the report, said these allegations may amount to crimes against humanity, the most severe violations, along with genocide and war crimes, under international law. Despite China’s long record of documented human rights abuses, this was the first time it faced such grave accusations from the United Nations.

The international community, working through the U.N., must respond with meaningful steps to end the abuses, free prisoners and hold Beijing to account.

The stakes extend far beyond Xinjiang’s borders.

Strong action is essential to draw a line in the sand against an orchestrated campaign waged for years by China to gut the U.N.’s ability to protect human rights. This goes well beyond China’s frequent use of its Security Council veto to shield abusers like Myanmar and Syria. Chinese efforts include a behind-the-scenes war of attrition to undermine mechanisms like the The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the 47-nation Human Rights Council, which is tasked with addressing violations.

China’s offensive takes many forms, ranging from its attempt to defund the human rights component of U.N. peacekeeping operations in 2018 to intimidating civil society groups, blocking their U.N. accreditation and manipulating the Human Rights Council.

The Chinese Communist Party’s ultimate goal is to cripple the international community’s ability to censure countries for human rights violations. The party’s own constitution candidly defines its rule as a “dictatorship,” and it sees human rights — and global scrutiny — as threatening its ability to crush challenges to its monopoly on domestic power and potentially impeding Beijing’s programs to build overseas influence like its Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s leverage is growing. The rise of authoritarianism around the world provides a widening base of support from like-minded regimes. Global dependence on Chinese trade, investment and financial assistance allows it to strong-arm other countries into silence. Chinese nationals lead or occupy high positions in several U.N. agencies, and Beijing exercises growing control over other appointments and financial affairs. Its readiness to interfere with vital U.N. work was made clear in its obstruction of World Health Organization efforts to determine the source of the coronavirus.

Xinjiang shows how effective this strategy can be.

Reports first emerged in 2017 that China was incarcerating up to a million Uyghurs and other minorities in re-education camps. (Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, have made up the bulk of Xinjiang’s population for centuries and have long chafed under Beijing’s control). China eventually acknowledged the camps existed, saying they were part of Islamic de-radicalization efforts.

Horrifying allegations poured out: children separated from parents; Uyghurs punished when relatives spoke out overseas; women forcibly sterilized or sexually abused; and what the U.N. report would eventually call an “unusual and stark” decline in Uyghur birthrates. In leaked documents on the Xinjiang crackdown, President Xi Jinping called in 2014 for “absolutely no mercy.”

Denying abuses, China sought to prevent global action. The former U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet repeatedly postponed publishing the investigation and during a visit to Xinjiang in May recited Chinese talking points. Her office released its report just minutes before Ms. Bachelet’s four-year term ended at midnight on Aug. 31, allowing her to avoid addressing its findings, and broke with precedent by refraining from recommending further international action.

The foot-dragging hasn’t stopped there.

Despite previously condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and human rights abuses in Myanmar, Iran and elsewhere, the U.N. secretary general, Antonio Guterres, has been largely silent on the Xinjiang report, omitting it from a Sept. 20 address to the General Assembly in which he lamented other rights abuses around the world. Volker Türk, who will replace Ms. Bachelet in October, has likewise not yet indicated any plans to follow up.

This is deeply concerning because, for all its defects, the United Nations plays a crucial in protecting human rights.

Before the world body was founded after World War II, no international framework existed for addressing the ethnic cleansing, mass murder, colonial brutality and other human rights abuses that states routinely committed, often against their own people.

U.N. founders absorbed the grim 20th-century lessons of two world wars, tens of millions of deaths, and the Holocaust, realizing that protecting human rights was essential for world peace. Nazi Germany was viewed as proof that political repression often precedes the rise of belligerent regimes.

The United Nations Charter embraced human rights, resulting in 18 international treaties that obligate signatories to protect everything from free expression to children’s rights. Human rights crises are frequently addressed by the Security Council, which can refer them to the International Criminal Court in situations where international crimes are suspected. Implementation often clashes with geopolitical and economic realities, but human rights finally has a seat at the table of world politics.

China is working to undo this.

It is up to the Human Rights Council, currently in session until Oct. 7, to decide on any follow-up. Potential options include a mandate to conduct further investigation, which has been done for Russian aggression in Ukraine and many other crises, and to press for accountability.

China, a member of the council, will fight tooth and nail. It has already denounced the U.N. investigation as “illegal,” calling the human rights office a “thug and accomplice of the U.S.” Beijing has garnered less support than expected at the council in defending its policies in Xinjiang, possibly reflecting discomfort with the enormity of the abuses. But meaningful action will require vigorous engagement by member states and courageous leadership from Mr. Guterres and Mr. Türk.

Confronting China over Xinjiang won’t automatically halt its sabotage of the U.N.’s human rights mission. But inaction would be a severe blow to U.N. credibility and risks putting the world back on a slippery slope where violations are once again tolerated or even normalized. China is pushing the world in that direction. It’s time to push back.

Nicholas Bequelin (@bequelin) is a human rights expert and China specialist. He was Amnesty International’s Asia director and a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch and is now a visiting scholar at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center.

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