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The United Nations says crimes against humanity may have happened in China's Xinjiang

This photo taken on May 31, 2019 shows a watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. As many as one million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in a network of internment camps in Xinjiang.
Greg Baker
/
AFP via Getty Images
This photo taken on May 31, 2019 shows a watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. As many as one million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are believed to be held in a network of internment camps in Xinjiang.

The United Nations' human rights chief has released a long-delayed report on abuses in China's Xinjiang region, despite substantial pressure from Beijing to block the report for the better part of a year.

The 48-page document concludes that "serious" human rights violations have been committed against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in the region in the name of counter-terrorism.

It also says "the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention... may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity."

The report comes as Michelle Bachelet, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, served out her last day in office, after announcing earlier that she was not seeking another term for "personal reasons."

Xinjiang, a huge, resource-rich region in the west of China, is where the authorities since 2017 have arbitrarily detained and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs, as well as other historically Muslim minorities such as the Hui and Kazakhs.

China at first denied it was detaining ethnic minorities, but later came to characterize detention camps and the intensive digital surveillance and policing that blankets the region as counterterrorism and economic development initiatives.

However, former detainees in Xinjiang have described accounts of physical and mental torture in the region's detention facilities and a network of expanded prisons. Leaked data and whistleblower accounts have turned up internal Chinese government documents confirming the extralegal detention of ordinary Uyghurs and the prison-like conditions in which they are held and "re-educated" to be loyal to the Chinese state.

The UN said it interviewed dozens of individuals with direct and firsthand knowledge of the situation in Xinjiang, including 26 who said they had been detained or worked in "various facilities" in the region since 2016.

"Allegations of patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention, are credible, as are allegations of individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence," the UN report said.

It called on China to take a number of steps, including releasing detainees, undertaking a full review of the legal framework for counter-terrorism work in the region, investigating allegations of rights violations, and providing "adequate remedy and reparation" to victims.

Before the report was released, China's ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, said Beijing was "firmly opposed" to it.

"We all know so well that the so-called Xinjiang issue is a fabricated lie [made] out of political motivations, and its purpose definitely is to undermine China's stability and to obstruct China's development," he told reporters.

Bachelet, the former president of Chile, expressed a desire to visit the region herself after beginning her tenure as the UN's top human rights officer in 2018.

In May this year, she finally managed to visit Xinjiang as part of a controversial, six-day fact-finding mission, which human rights activists criticized for being highly stage-managed by Chinese authorities. On the visit, she also talked to China's leader Xi Jinping by video, a conversation in which Chinese media quoted her as praising the country's human rights record.

"She expressed admiration for China's efforts and achievements in eliminating poverty, protecting human rights and realizing economic and social development," according to a readout from China's state news agency Xinhua.

But nearly 10 months after Bachelet floated the idea of putting together a report on Xinjiang's human rights conditions, her office had yet to finalize a date, confounding diplomats and activists.

Reuters reported earlier this summer that Chinese diplomats at the UN were circulating a petition lobbying other countries to help China bury the report.

And as late as this week, Bachelet appeared to backpedal on her commitment to release the report, saying that there was "tremendous pressure to publish or not publish." She said her office received "substantial input" from China on the report, which they had to review before releasing it.

Human rights groups say China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has been rapidly building up coercive leverage within the multinational institution in part to stymie meaningful investigation into human rights abuses.

"China's introduced competing narratives at the UN that try to block or weaken UN resolutions on civil society and human rights," said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

Michele Kelemen contributed reporting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.