The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently released a long-delayed report on China’s appalling treatment of its Uighur minority. The report is another layer of evidence of Beijing’s systematic and horrific abuse of Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities.
Why the delay? Why did it take several months for UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet to publish the report, only doing so due to sustained pressure from Western governments 11 minutes before her term expired? The simple answer is Chinese bullying. According to Reuters and corroborated by at least three governments, Beijing quietly circulated a letter to government delegations asking them to pressure Bachelet to quash the report. What is unknown is just how strong-armed China’s tactics have been toward Bachelet personally and toward the 47 governments of the UN Human Rights Council. Some probably needed no inducements to block the report since the UN Human Rights Council includes Cuba, Libya, Venezuela, and Sudan.
China has sought to quietly but firmly suppress international criticism of its actions. Last year Science reported China’s intense pressure at the World Health Organization (WHO) lest it criticize China’s COVID-19 policies. The Guardian has reported that the reason that no Muslim-majority government, from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia, actively criticizes China’s crimes against the Muslim Uighurs is due to explicit economic carrots and sticks.
The UN Report documents victims accounts of forced labor, rape, mass detention, torture, religious and cultural persecution, family separation, and other human rights abuses. The Chinese government’s “vocational training centers” are concentration camps. Victims report “being beaten with batons, including electric batons while strapped in so-called ‘tiger chair;’ being subjected to interrogation with water being poured in their faces; prolonged solitary confinement; and being forced to sit motionless on small stools for prolonged periods of time.”
The UN Report specifically cites previous reports and evidence, most notably the Xinjian Police Files released earlier this year. Those files included the transcripts of government speeches gloating over the effectiveness of their brutal anti-Uighur campaign. The long-term goal is the homogenization of Chinese society and unquestioning allegiance to President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party.
China claims that the million incarcerated Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, are terrorists, criminals, or likely to become so due to family and cultural networks. Hence, the camps’ alleged purpose of de-radicalizing terrorists and providing job training skills for vulnerable youth. However, the UN Report documents the reality: the camps are just another in China’s long record of “re-education,” starting with the Cultural Revolution back in the 1950s, that are a cover for slavery and other crimes against humanity.
Ironically, China is a signatory to numerous human rights conventions and has been a member of the Human Rights Council.
What are we to make of all this? Firstly, although it is easy to dismiss the UN and all of international law as ambiguous, weak, and ineffectual, nonetheless this report and the legal conventions point us back to the fundamental truth that we all know: every human being is made with intrinsic moral worth. The first step to be taken is a consistent re-endorsement of this principle in law and policy.
Secondly, these reports should create a center of gravity for the U.S. and other Western governments to engage Muslim-majority societies and motivate those citizens to push their own leaders to restrict business with China. The Uighurs would be in a very different situation if we could get Middle Eastern governments to restrict the flow of oil to China or if South Asian governments would say no to China’s tempting low-interest infrastructure projects. This type of cooperative diplomacy requires patient alliance-building and one wonders if President Biden and his administration have the energy and bandwidth for such a long-term approach.