NEW YORK (AP) — The United Nations will be judged by how it handles China’s persecution of ethnic minorities, diplomats and human rights defenders accused Monday on the sidelines of the body’s General Assembly, calling for strong action after a report that raised the specter of “crimes against humanity”.
For years, rights activists and journalists have exposed the brutal treatment of Uyghurs and other mainly Muslim ethnic groups in the western region of Xinjiang, where China is accused of a relentless campaign of torture, sexual assault and ethnic cleansing. These accusations have been widely accepted in the West, but they got a new look with the landmark report released last month by the UN human rights office.
“Inaction is no longer possible,” Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on minority rights, told a forum sponsored by the Atlantic Council and Human Rights Watch as world leaders descended on New York. “If we let this go unpunished, what kind of message is being spread?”
Jeffrey Prescott, deputy US ambassador to the United Nations, suggested the institution’s integrity was at stake in its response to China.
“How these atrocities are dealt with ultimately depends on the credibility of this system, the credibility of our international system itself,” he said. “It is deeply disappointing to see a country that was so central to the creation of the modern UN system and enjoys its status as a permanent member of the Security Council, in such profound breach of its commitments.”
The UN report on China’s alleged abuses was released in the final minutes of the last day in office of Michele Bachelet, now the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Its release is believed to have been long delayed. Bachelet never explained the timeline.
China responded furiously to its release, calling it “a hodgepodge of false information” and portraying it as a fabrication cooked up by Western nations. It issued a lengthy denial and promised to stop cooperating with the UN human rights office, and Chinese diplomats are now pushing others to prevent the possibility of further scrutiny of its campaign in Xinjiang.
Rob Roe, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, called China’s reaction unsurprising and said it merited further action.
“We have to face this question. We must address the question of what further sanctions will be required. We have to face the question of what further steps could be taken to respond to the scale of this crisis,” he said.
The UN report came, in part, from interviews with more than a dozen former detainees and others familiar with conditions at eight detention centers who described being beaten, prevented from praying and forced to perform sexual acts on guards. He said the evidence could amount to “crimes against humanity,” but made no mention of the genocide, which the United States and other countries have accused China of committing.
Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Bachelet’s immediate predecessor as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said his successor deserved credit for publishing the report, but said it was a “deficit” not to mention the abuses as genocide. He also criticized her for not calling for the establishment of a formal UN commission of inquiry.
“To be silent is to be an accomplice,” he said.
Raihan Asat, a Uyghur lawyer who works for the Atlantic Council and whose brother is imprisoned in Xinjiang, urged the world to push for action, not only against China, but also against companies that profit from its abuses.
“We shouldn’t let the Chinese government get away with normalizing what the state did,” he said, “because at the end of the day, this is state violence.”
AP National Writer Matt Sedensky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and https://twitter.com/sedensky. For more AP coverage of the UN General Assembly, visit https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly.