New UN rights chief vows to engage Beijing on Xinjiang findings

Volker Turk’s predecessor published a report on China’s treatment of the Uighurs in the final minutes of her tenure.

Volker turk
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk attends a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland [Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk says he is determined to engage with China on a damning report published by his predecessor that alleged government mistreatment of the Uighurs and other mostly Muslim groups that may amount to crimes against humanity.

Turk made the comments during a media briefing in Geneva on Friday, referring to the report released by Michelle Bachelet just minutes before her tenure ended earlier this year.

“The report that was issued on 31 August is a very important one and has highlighted very serious human rights concerns,” said Turk, who took over the role in October.

“I will personally continue engaging with the authorities. I’m very determined to do so,” he said, adding that “hope springs eternal”.

The remarks were Turk’s first public comments on the matter.

Before the long-delayed report’s release, Bachelet had said she faced “tremendous pressure to publish or not to publish”, including “substantial input” from Beijing on the report in the waning days of her tenure, as well as a letter signed by countries including North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba that called for publication to be halted.

The findings brought UN endorsement to long-running allegations from advocates, campaigners and survivors who have accused Beijing of detaining more than one million Uighurs and other Muslims in camps and forcibly sterilising women, among other charges.

The report highlighted “credible” allegations of widespread torture, arbitrary detention and violations of religious and reproductive rights. It called for the world to give “urgent attention” to the human rights situation in the Xinjiang region in western China.

For its part, Beijing broadly rejected the findings and accused the UN of becoming a “thug and accomplice of the US and the West”.

China, one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, also indicated it would cease cooperation with the UN human rights office in the wake of the report’s release.

Beyond China, Turk referenced several other human rights challenges facing his office during Friday’s news conference.

He decried “the continued systematic exclusion of women and girls from virtually all aspects of life” by the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which took control of the country in August 2021 amid the withdrawal of US-led foreign troops.

He called the Iranian government’s announcement of the first publicly known execution related to continuing protests in the country “very troubling”.

Anti-government unrest has persisted in Iran following the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the country’s morality police in capital Tehran for allegedly not adhering to the government’s dress code for women.

The rights chief also said he was “appalled” by a massacre last month in which the UN said at least 131 civilians were killed by M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He said the DRC was on his list of countries to visit next year.

The DRC government has put the death toll of the November attack at about 300.

Meanwhile, Turk called the Russian invasion of Ukraine, from where he recently returned after an official visit, an ongoing “human rights emergency”.

The conflict entered its 289th day on Friday.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies