UN Report on Xinjiang Internment Marks a Symbolic Step Towards Action

By Spencer Benefiel

After four years of silence, the UN has condemned China’s treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province, saying the internment camps there are home to “Serious human rights violations” in an assessment released on August 31 by the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). 

The report confirmed countless abuses and listed types of rights that these camps strip away from their unwilling residents, including religious, cultural, linguistic, privacy and even reproductive rights. The statement also paid special attention to one of the most basic yet crucial rights the camps repressed, freedom of movement, which results in separation of families. 

“The Xinjiang Autonomous region is strategically, economically, and geopolitically very important to China,” Dr. Christine Kim, professor of international studies, said. “From the Chinese perspective, it does not want to lose this lucrative territory. Also, since the 1990s, there have been disruptive independence movements and terrorist actions in the region. The Chinese government wants to maintain order in the region.” 

To China, the internment camps are a necessary method to protect an important region. As long as the international community has known about these camps, China’s continued rhetoric has been divided into two major points. 

First, these camps are intended for political extremists and terrorists exclusively. As such, they should be viewed more like prisons than internment camps like those run by the United States during the Second World War for innocent Japanese-American civilians. Secondly, these camps are schools, intended only for re-educating these “extremists” to protect them from dangerous ideologies. But the OHCHR investigation called these claims into question, revealing that what China considers religious extremism falls well within the bounds of normal practice of religion. 

A Chinese document listing signs of extremism for police use contained commonplace Muslim practices, including simple things such as growing a beard, refraining from consuming alcohol and smoking, and refusing to listen to state radio and television, as cited in the assessment. Clearly, China’s standard of “extremists” is simply those that seek to live outside mainland China’s cultural norm. 

The investigation also criticized China’s identification of these facilities as mere “schools.” The UN document stated that due to the “restriction of movement,” these facilities could not be schools, though they aim to re-educate Uyghurs and assimilate them into the homogenous culture of China. 

China’s human rights breaches in Xinjiang province have been documented by countless international observers and news agencies since the camps’ inception in 2017. But the OHCHR’s statement marks the first official condemnation from the UN itself. This victory in human rights awareness rings hollow, however, since it has taken nearly five years for the UN to get to this point, and it has not come without cost. The statement was released as a last act of defiance by the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who published it on her final day in office before being succeeded by Volker Türk of Austria. 

As for the impact of this document, right now signs point to nothing substantial. Most of what the document recommended was directed towards China itself, asking for increased transparency, investigation into allegations of “torture, sexual violence, ill-treatment, forced medical treatment, as well as forced labour”, and the release of innocent prisoners. China has shown no sign of listening to these recommendations. The Chinese delegation to the UN responded to the OHCHR report, saying that it “distorts China’s laws” and “smears and slanders China.” China will hold to its position of falsehood. 

“The good news is, it’s a statement that’s been made,” Dr. Glen Duerr, professor of international studies, said. It does draw a line in the sand and say this is behavior that is not acceptable. We can’t stop you from doing it, but it’s not acceptable. There is a grand power to the statement, to chide openly a sitting member of the UN Security Council.” 

Regardless of whether China itself will change or other countries will hold it accountable, the report still marks a victory for transparency, albeit a symbolic one. China has immense influence within the UN, and the fact that anything has been said about the Uyghurs’ plight, never mind something so scathing, is not a minor event.

Spencer Benefiel is a senior History major and is passionate about aviation, role playing games, and soundtracks.

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