It is past time for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to do her job, nearly five years into an ongoing genocide. In 2017, the world learned about the Chinese government’s concentration camps for Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples. Chinese officials labeled millions of people as a threat to the state, separated them from their families, and disappeared them behind barbed wire fences for the crime of being a Uyghur in their homeland. In the camps, they endured brutal torture, indoctrination, and sterilization.
Civil society acted. Journalists, academics, and human rights researchers uncovered abuses ranging from the destruction of 16,000 mosques in East Turkestan, to mass imprisonment of intellectuals, imams, and ordinary people. Leaked government documents confirmed these deliberate state crimes. A Uyghur Tribunal comprised of independent experts found in December 2021 that the Chinese government is committing a genocide.
Uyghurs overseas, searching for disappeared loved ones, organized and called on legislators to punish these crimes. Representatives responded with sanctions on entities benefiting from the forced labor of Uyghurs, visa bans and asset freezes on culpable Chinese officials, and laws to support and protect Uyghurs. Nine legislative bodies, including the U.S. Congress, have recognized the Chinese government’s crimes against Uyghurs as genocide.
But the United Nations is missing in action. For three and a half years, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet used oral updates to the Human Rights Council to briefly raise concerns about abuses against Uyghurs, and persistently called on China to allow access for her office to investigate. The request was ignored, unsurprisingly. The net result has been essentially a free pass for China at the Human Rights Council.
Finally, four years into the genocide, in September 2021, Bachelet announced that she had taken up her independent monitoring mandate, and was in the process of finalizing an assessment of human rights crimes against Uyghurs. In December, her office said that the long-overdue report would be released “in a matter of weeks.”
Another five months passed. The report is still under wraps and Bachelet has plans to finally visit China this month. The trip will be nothing more than a propaganda exercise. The Chinese government has repeatedly declared that any U.N. visit must be undertaken on “friendly terms,” to “promote exchanges and cooperation between the two sides.” Such a visit will not meet the minimum terms for “unfettered” access.
It is a sad indictment of the United Nations, an organization established in the aftermath of one genocide, that it has put on hold a report on the Uyghur genocide in favor of a visit that will not meet the U.N.’s own minimum terms for a credible investigation.
I ask the High Commissioner to do her job. I urge her to immediately release the report her office has already prepared. It’s time for the U.N. to officially recognize the brave public testimony of survivors, thousands of pages of leaked Chinese government documents, meticulous peer-reviewed research, and hundreds of damning satellite images of concentration camps.
Uyghurs have no faith that any U.N. report based on a visit organized by the Chinese government will do anything to hold to account the perpetrators of our suffering. What Bachelet will be shown is a rebuilt land, and a people who have been brutally “reeducated,” now that the government’s genocidal project has had free rein for nearly five years.
Many Uyghurs were once idealists about the U.N., trusting that it was an impartial forum that would hear our testimony about gross abuses. But again and again, the U.N. has denied us a voice. Twice, World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa was unjustifiably ejected from the U.N. building in New York because of interference by Wu Hongbo, then U.N. undersecretary for economic and social affairs. Wu later admitted in an interview that he acted in the interest of the Chinese government and used his power as a U.N. official to eject Isa, a violation of the U.N. Charter requiring officials to remain neutral in the exercise of their duties.
Civil society groups documenting the Uyghur crisis are consistently denied accreditation to participate in U.N. forums. The U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention has not said a word. Now the U.N.’s highest human rights official has shelved an independent report and has agreed to a visit allowing the Chinese government to put on a show.
It is a sad indictment of the United Nations, an organization established in the aftermath of one cataclysmic genocide, that it has yet to impose any consequences, or even to officially condemn, China’s ongoing high-tech genocide against the Uyghur people.