The United Nations human rights office has released a long-delayed and damning report into conditions for the Uighur (also spelled as Uyghurs) ethnic minority in China’s northwestern Xinjiang autonomous region.
The report details serious rights abuse against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and states that such treatment by China may amount to “crimes against humanity”.
The 45-page report released by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) late on Wednesday found that serious violations have been committed in Xinjiang under China’s application of measures to counter “terrorism” and “extremism”.
China has described the UN report as a “farce”.
Defending its policies towards the Uighurs, China’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva attached a 131-page response document (PDF).
The Chinese and UN reports on Xinjiang and the treatment of Uighurs are diametrically opposed in their views of the situation.
Here are some of the UN’s main findings accompanied by China’s opposing views on life in Xinjiang.
‘Vocational training’ or mass detention?
Beijing has enforced severe security measures in Xinjiang in recent years in what it says are efforts to combat separatism and religious extremism.
As part of those operations, Beijing has been accused of confining more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in a network of detention facilities across Xinjiang.
According to the UN report, China’s anti-terrorism laws have led to the arbitrary detention – on a wide scale – of Uighurs and other mainly Muslim communities through so-called “Vocational Education and Training Centres” (VETC) – facilities where individuals are sent for “de-radicalization” and “re-education”.
The UN said there were credible allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and poor conditions in the VETCs and other facilities, as well as forced medical treatments and incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.
“Abuse in VETC and other detention facilities come against the backdrop of broader discrimination against members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities based on perceived security threats,” the UN said.
The UN also called on China to release all those detained arbitrarily in VETC, prisons, and other detention sites, and to account for the “whereabouts” of people whose families are seeking answers as to their locations, including providing access to communication and travel so that they may reunite.
China must also investigate allegations of human rights abuse at VETC facilities “including allegations of torture, sexual violence, ill-treatment, forced medical treatment, as well as forced labour and reports of deaths in custody”.
Though the Chinese government claims the VETC system has been significantly reduced in scope or retired entirely, the legal frameworks and policies that allowed for the arbitrary and mass detention of the Uighur minority remain in place, the UN said.
China claims that the implementation of vocational training in Xinjiang was “in strict compliance with the laws” and with “rigorous, legal oversight”.
Courses at the vocational centres include standard spoken and written Chinese, as well as law and vocational skills. The training was focused on “de-radicalization” and “psychological correction and behavioural intervention to help trainees change their mindset, re-enter society and re-join their family”.
“Fundamentally, the education and training centers are schools in nature,” the Chinese document released in rebuttal to the UN’s report states.
“They are not detention camps”, the report states, adding that claims of “trainees” going “missing” or “forced missing” were “pure fabrications”.
According to China, trainees at the VETCs enjoy personal freedoms in terms of movement and correspondence. Trainees return home regularly and can apply to leave the centres to attend to personal matters.
State policies in Xinjiang have also placed severe restrictions on Uighur religious identity and expression, according to the UN, as well as restricting the right to privacy, freedom of movement, and violations of reproductive rights through discriminatory family planning and birth control policies.
Elements of coercion and discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds were also evident in labour and employment schemes purportedly to alleviate poverty and prevent “extremism”, the UN said.
China claims that VETCs respect freedom of religious belief, customs, traditions, and trainees can use their minority spoken and written languages.
“The centers fully respect the cultural needs of trainees,” according to the Chinese report.
However, the report also notes that China’s Regulations on Religious Affairs prohibit holding or organising religious activities in the centres.
The report stresses that the VETCs are not “concentration camps”, and “there was no such thing as violations of human rights at the centers”.
Trainees are, in fact, covered by pension and medical insurance, and receive free health checks, according to the report.
“In Xinjiang, the Uyghur and people of all ethnic groups fully enjoy the right to freedom of religious belief”, and “normal religious activities in accordance with law” are protected.
Xinjiang’s “education and training” policies, China argues, are a “concrete example of China’s efforts to implement UN action plans as well as international initiatives and concepts on counter-terrorism and de-radicalization”.
Training for Islamic scholars “has been upgraded”, and investment in the Xinjiang Islamic School has been made.
Surveillance of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, according to the UN report, should not infringe on the freedoms and basic rights of individuals.
The UN also called on China to clarify reports of destruction of mosques, religious shrines, and cemeteries – and to suspend such activities in the meantime.
China’s report states that the installation of security cameras in rural and urban public places in Xinjiang is consistent with established international practices, and the measure is not designed to target any particular ethnic group.
The report compares the practice in Xinjiang with the United States and the United Kingdom and describes the criticism of China for surveillance as “naked double standards”.
China said it was opposed to the release of the UN report which “ignores the human rights achievements” made by all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
China has pursued a “people-centred approach” in its policies and has embarked on a human rights development plan that aligns with “trends of the times and suits China’s national condition”.
China “upholds that living a happy life is the primary human right”.
“To sum up, respecting and protecting human rights is a basic principle enshrined in the Constitution of China” the Chinese report states.
Anti-China forces in the US and the West merely pretend to care about human rights but were using the Uighur issue as a means to “destabilize Xinjiang and suppress China”.
“Such despicable plots are doomed to fail,” the report states.