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Why Hasn’t the U.N. Accused China of Genocide in Xinjiang?

Two weeks ago, the United Nations Human Rights Office published a report on China’s western Xinjiang region, where there has been large-scale repression of the Uyghur population and other predominantly Muslim communities. The report, released by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who left office within minutes of issuing it, found that China’s government had committed violations that may amount to “crimes against humanity.” Although the report does not label China’s actions “genocide,” as the American government has, or even mention the term, it did find widespread and systemic abuse of human rights, including “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of perhaps more than a million people. China tried to prevent the release of the report—which was repeatedly delayed after a draft was completed almost a year ago.

I recently spoke by phone with Nicholas Bequelin, a visiting fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. Bequelin, the former regional director for Amnesty International in Asia, worked on an early Human Rights Watch report on Xinjiang, in 2005. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether the U.N. went far enough in its conclusions, whether the “genocide” label should apply to Xinjiang, and what is really driving China’s repressive policies.

There appears to be some division among experts about whether this report is a long-awaited vindication of those who’ve been drawing attention to the horrific human-rights abuses in western China or whether the report is incomplete. How do you see it?

There’s been a lot of criticism of the High Commissioner on Human Rights over the publication of this report. A lot of this criticism overlooks the difficulty of the position. The Office of the High Commissioner is not Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. Those are independent civil-society organizations with no ties to specific states. The High Commissioner is an international public servant in an interstate organization; it’s always a high-wire act to fulfill the mission of the office. In this case, the office was under tremendous pressure from China to not publish the report. At the same time, the credibility of the office was on the line because the amount of evidence in the public domain about the scale of abuses in Xinjiang is overwhelming.

Not publishing a factual report on the situation would have gravely undermined the authority of the High Commissioner’s office in the eyes of the general public, and within the U.N. system itself. Bachelet published it, but less than fifteen minutes before she was stepping down, which lets her successor deal with the fallout. Having said that, the content of the report, I think, is fair, balanced, and authoritative.

What within the report is so important?

The most important element of the report is that the violations in Xinjiang and the policies carried out in Xinjiang may amount to crimes against humanity under international human-rights law. This means that China is committing atrocities in Xinjiang, which is extraordinarily significant. To my knowledge, it’s the first time that the Office of the High Commissioner has reached this determination with respect to China. China has never been accused of committing crimes against humanity by a U.N. agency. And this also dovetailed with the conclusions of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among other organizations, which have published investigations on Xinjiang.

Anything that fell short of that qualification would have been problematic. The very definition of crimes against humanity is abuses that are widespread and systematic. In this case, there is a deliberate policy to target a particular group—ethnic minorities in Xinjiang—and to carry out large and systematically repressive policies that entail very serious violations, such as enforced disappearances, torture, murder, sexual violence, and so on.

The report also establishes two important findings. The first is that the entire framework that China is relying on in this campaign to combat what its government calls terrorism and extremism is incompatible with its international human-rights obligations. The [supposed] crimes are vaguely defined. They are arbitrarily determined.

These are the crimes that China is accusing the Uyghurs of committing?

Correct. Terrorism, religious extremism, engaging in illegal religious activities, and so on. According to the U.N. report, the entire legal framework that China has put in place to combat what it says is the risk of terrorism or religious extremism is in contradiction with human-rights standards. It’s arbitrary, it’s vague, it’s politicized, and it doesn’t offer the kind of legal guarantees and remedies that should be present, especially with respect to deprivation of liberty. If you put people in an internment camp, there should be legal procedures for that. In the program that China has been rolling out for a number of years in Xinjiang that has led to the internment of hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, none of these guarantees are present.

The second important element is that a range of very severe violations—torture, enforced disappearances, intimidation, the stamping out of religious or cultural expression—were found. Both the legal basis and the implementation of the campaign are profoundly violative of human rights, and that is extremely important when it comes from a U.N. agency.

Did the investigators find anything that should change the way we understand what’s been going on in Xinjiang? And, if so, how?

I don’t think that there is anything new in the report, but a lot of the information comes from the Office of the High Commissioner conducting its own investigation and examination. In other words, they didn’t collect news clippings and put it together in a nice report with a bow. They interviewed more than forty people, which is significant—these are firsthand-witness accounts—and reviewed and assessed the authenticity and authoritativeness of a wide range of documents and information, including internal documents from the Chinese state and the authorities in Xinjiang, satellite pictures, and a host of regulations and laws.

They conducted their own independent assessments and came to the same conclusions on many points. They did it in a very objective and balanced way, knowing that their findings would be scrutinized heavily in the public domain, by the member states, and by China itself. Why does it matter that it’s a U.N. agency that publishes these reports rather than a newspaper or human-rights organization? I think it’s the difference between spectators at a sports game claiming that one of the teams has committed a foul and the referee calling out for a foul on the pitch. It’s an official sanction by the person, or, in this case, the U.N. agency, who has been given the explicit mandate to make these kinds of determinations. It carries a very different weight in international politics than independent reports by N.G.O.s, and certainly a heavier weight than anything that has been published so far.

To take your analogy further, you could say that a sports referee doesn’t just get to determine whether something was a foul but gets to punish the players for committing the foul. That would be a difference here.

Yeah, this is a limited analogy, but, when a report that makes this type of allegation is published, the Human Rights Council should be obligated to take further steps, either to set up a fact-finding mission or take action on the fact that these very serious allegations have been established. The Office of the Secretary General can’t just sit by and pretend that nothing happened. They have to take it up, and I think that’s the setup for a showdown between China, along with whatever allies among party states it manages to strong-arm, and the members of the U.N. who are serious about upholding human-rights standards.

The tone of the report is definitely very critical of China. You mentioned crimes against humanity. The report says that China “may” have committed crimes against humanity, correct? It doesn’t go all the way. Is that problematic?

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