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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

China’s atrocities against Uyghurs demand a response

Updated: Sep 14, 2022

By Ewelina U. Ochab and Knox Thames

A few minutes before her term ended as the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet published the long-awaited report about the horrifying situation in Xinjiang, China. In the report, her office confirmed evidence of severe and shocking human rights violations targeting Uyghurs and other Muslims. Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s grandstanding about propaganda, the damning report demands a response from rights-respecting nations. Otherwise, promises of human rights will be nothing more than arid euphemisms.

The report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found that “serious human rights violations have been committed” in Xinjiang, also referred to as “XUAR.” The report’s authors stated how the “implementation of these strategies, and associated policies in XUAR has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights” that “often directly or indirectly affect Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities.” The report spoke of mass detentions, bans on prayer, sexual assaults, family separations, and other forms of persecution.

China lobbied furiously against the report, especially against a genocide finding. One diplomat stated his belief that UN authors caved to Beijing’s pressure and watered down the section on forced sterilization to weaken genocide claims. The official Chinese response was hyperbolic and lengthy, a 131-page reply to a 48-page document. They slammed the supposed “disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces.” Without a sense of irony, China urged the OHCHR to “respect the will of the Chinese people” and view their “counter-terrorism efforts and human rights policies in Xinjiang in a fair and objective manner.” A Chinese diplomat stated the report’s release “closed the door of cooperation” with the United Nations.

Although Beijing would like to ignore the report’s shocking findings, its documentation puts the world on notice that international crimes, particularly crimes against humanity, were perpetrated against the Uyghurs by the Chinese government. The findings mirror what other countries and organizations have determined; several have concluded a genocide is underway. Therefore, the UN and rights-respecting member states should begin a process toward justice and accountability.

Currently, no existing mechanism could collect and preserve evidence from Xinjiang and engage on the issue of international crimes against the parameters of international law. Forty-five independent UN-appointed experts recently released a statement in support of the findings, highlighting extreme restrictions on human rights and how “the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities … may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The experts called for the Human Rights Council to convene a special session on China.

While the Human Rights Council should be the venue of choice, the smaller number of members and current composition make such a session unlikely. However, another venue may be more fruitful: the UN General Assembly. Set to convene in New York, the body can establish an accountability mechanism.

The United States, United Kingdom, and France would need to build a global north-south coalition, including major countries such as Brazil, Japan, Korea, Australia, Kenya and others. As seen with the resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the General Assembly can rise to the moment. Such an effort would not be easy, of course, in the face of intense Chinese lobbying. Muslim-majority nations have been noticeably silent about the persecution of Uyghur Muslims because of China’s pressure. However, a global campaign could shame them into advocating for their coreligionists or pressure them to abstain. Only a simple majority is needed.

The new UN report on China must be a call to action. It documents atrocity crimes and plainly shows the need for a response. With the General Assembly convening, rights-respecting nations should work to establish a specialized mechanism for the situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Leadership is required to ensure justice and accountability for the Uyghurs. Will the world respond?

Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab is the co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response. Follow her on Twitter @EwelinaUO.

Knox Thames was the U.S. Special Adviser for Religious Minorities during the Obama and Trump administrations. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.

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