A blistering report and a new challenge for Geneva—how to deal with it?

Finally released by the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, just a few minutes before leaving office at midnight yesterday (August 31), the long-awaited report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is damning.

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China has committed “serious human rights violations” in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. “The extent of the arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups […] may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Finally released by the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, just a few minutes before leaving office at midnight yesterday (August 31), the long-awaited report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is damning. The 46-page document confirms and complements credible and detailed information collected by Uyghurs and other Muslim minority survivors, human rights organizations, NGOs, media organizations, researchers, and governments over the last few years. But the report’s true significance lies in the fact that these accounts have now been given the imprimatur of the UN human rights office, providing the organization and the international community with a new opportunity to deal with the accusations that China continues to vehemently reject. Not only will the body of evidence amassed be extremely difficult for China to refute, but in the process of suppressing the report, Beijing has revealed the bluntness of its method in trying to avoid being held accountable.


The report is “an unprecedented challenge to Beijing’s lies and horrific treatment of Uyghurs […] The High Commissioner’s damning findings explain why the Chinese government fought tooth and nail to prevent the publication of her Xinjiang report, which lays bare China’s sweeping rights abuses,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). Richardson has been one of Michelle Bachelet’s most vocal critics since the UN human rights chief agreed to visit China, largely under Beijing’s terms. Richardson also urged the UN Human Rights Council to investigate China’s “crimes against humanity targeting the Uyghurs and others and hold those responsible to account.”

Pressure has also come hard and fast from other human rights organizations: “The inexcusable delay in releasing this report casts a stain on the [U.N. Human Rights Office’s] record, but this should not deflect from its significance,” wrote Agnès Callamard, Amnesty’s International Secretary General.

Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, who recently told The G|O he felt betrayed by Michelle Bachelet, praised the report’s conclusions and its publication. “It paves the way for meaningful and tangible action by member states, UN bodies, and the business community.”


There had been fears from the victims of China’s repression, the human rights community, NGOs and governments that Michelle Bachelet—and her boss—would be accommodating to Beijing; but it is now clear that these fears have not materialized. Beijing tried until the last hour to prevent the release of the OHCHR report, sending a last-minute 121-page note verbale to Bachelet’s office, opposing its release and trying to rebut the report’s conclusion. But there was, in the end, no caving in to China’s massive pressure.

Beijing’s power and influence within the UN system have steadily increased over the years. Under Xi Jinping’s guidance, the Chinese Communist Party, while portraying itself as fully committed to the multilateral system, has leveraged its economic and financial clout to try toreshape the global governance system at the UN and other multilateral organizations and, in particular, to present an alternative vision of human rights. China is not alone in using its clout and diplomacy to fend off investigations into human rights abuses, but most experts agree that China is the most strident in its pushback and that a growing ideological divide now separates China’s vision from countries that defend and promote fundamental human rights as embodied in the Universal Human Rights Declaration (UDHR) and its covenants.


A few hours after the release of the report, the Chinese mission in Geneva put out a statement calling the “so-called ‘assessment’ on Xinjiang” a “farce” and a politically-motivated attempt to smear China. “It is completely a politicized document that disregards facts and reveals explicitly the attempt of some Western countries and anti-China forces to use human rights as a political tool,” the statement said.

The next potential step could be for the Human Rights Council (HRC) to accept the creation of a commission of inquiry to investigate China’s human rights violations denounced in the report. Many HRC watchers, including several governments, have long considered that the body of credible evidence of egregious violations in the Xinjiang province collected over the years was sufficient for the HRC to establish a commission of inquiry. The fact that it has not done so, many say, is a reflection of China’s power at the UN. However, the report’s publication might change the dynamics at the HRC when it meets on September 12 for its 51st session.

In her final remarks to the Council last Tuesday (August 30), partly explaining the rationale behind her decision to travel to China, Michelle Bachelet told the members: “We must do everything possible to avert a great fracture and maintain a universal system, a multipolar world with strong multilateral institutions and universal respect for international law.” Today, how to do so is one of Geneva's and the international community's biggest challenge and opportunity.