The UN has accused China of “serious human rights violations” in a long-awaited report into allegations of abuse in Xinjiang province.
China had urged the UN not to release the report – with Beijing calling it a “farce” arranged by Western powers.
The report assesses claims of abuse against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities, which China denies.
But investigators said they found “credible evidence” of torture possibly amounting to “crimes against humanity”.
The report was released on Michelle Bachelet’s final day on the job after four years as the UN’s high commissioner for human rights. Her term has been dominated by the accusations of abuse against the Uyghurs.
Her team’s report accused China of using vague national security laws to clamp down on the rights of minorities and establishing “systems of arbitrary detention”.
It said prisoners had been subjected to “patterns of ill-treatment” which included “incidents of sexual and gender-based violence”.
Others, they said, faced forced medical treatment and “discriminatory enforcement of family planning and birth control policies”.
The UN recommended that China immediately takes steps to release “all individuals arbitrarily deprived of their liberty” and suggested that some of Beijing’s actions could amount to the “commission of international crimes, including crimes against humanity”.
While the UN said it could not be sure how many people have been held by the government, human rights groups estimate that more than a million people have been detained at camps in the Xinjiang region, in north-west China.
The World Uyghur Congress welcomed the report and urged a swift international response.
“Despite the Chinese government’s strenuous denials, the UN has now officially recognised that horrific crimes are occurring,” Uyghur Human Rights Project Executive Director Omer Kanat said.
There are about 12 million Uyghurs, mostly Muslim, living in Xinjiang. The UN said non-Muslim members may have also been affected by the issues in the report.
The US and lawmakers in several other countries have previously denounced China’s actions in Xinjiang as a genocide, but the UN stopped short of making the accusation.
Beijing – which saw the report in advance – denies allegations of abuse and argued that the camps are a tool to fight terrorism.
China has always insisted that Uyghur militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state, but it is accused of exaggerating the threat in order to justify repression of the Uyghurs.
Its delegation to the UN human rights council in Geneva on Thursday rejected the findings of the report, which it said “smeared and slandered China” and interfered in the country’s internal affairs.
“This so-called ‘assessment’ is a politicised document that ignores the facts, and fully exposes the intention of the US, Western countries and anti-China forces to use human rights as a political tool,” it said in a lengthy statement.
Will the UN report lead to change?
Tessa Wong, Asia Digital Reporter
The ball is now in the global community’s court. Already, Uyghur rights activists are calling for a commission of inquiry to be set up, and asking businesses around the world to cut all ties with anyone abetting the Chinese government in its handling of the Uyghurs.
Whether increased international pressure will result in concrete change is debatable. Beijing has doubled down on its stance, denying that atrocities have taken place and insisting it is a victim of a Western-led smear campaign. It says Xinjiang is now socially stable and economically developed and has even called it “the greatest human rights achievement”.
The UN report is no doubt embarrassing, further chipping away at China’s insistence that it is a responsible member of the international community.
But this investigation is just the latest in a long series of damning reports that Beijing has summarily dismissed.
Domestic pressure is also unlikely. The issue of Uyghur human rights abuses has never been a top concern for many in China, mostly because it has long been a taboo topic and heavily censored – as of Thursday afternoon, the UN report had yet to be mentioned in Chinese mainstream media or social media platforms.
The fate of the Uyghurs depends on when the Chinese government decides it has fully vanquished what it sees as the threat of terrorism and radicalism in the community.
It is anyone’s guess when it will reach that conclusion – if ever.
Ms Bachelet’s office indicated that an investigation into allegations of genocide in Xinjiang was under way over a year ago.
But publication was delayed several times, leading to accusations by some Western human rights groups that Beijing was urging her to bury damaging findings in the report.
Last week she admitted that she was under “tremendous pressure to publish or not to publish” the report. But she defended the delay, arguing that seeking dialogue with Beijing over the report did not mean she was “turning a blind eye” to its contents.
Amnesty International condemned “the inexcusable delay” in publishing the findings.
Tom Tugendhat, chair of the UK’s foreign affairs select committee, said the findings of the report represented an “extremely serious charge” and rejected Beijing’s argument that the allegations were stoking anti-Chinese sentiment.
Earlier this year, the BBC obtained leaked files which revealed an organised system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture of Uyghur Muslims at a network of camps.
The Xinjiang Police Files were passed to the BBC and revealed a targeting of the community on orders leading all the way up to Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.
Disclaimer: Uyghurs: China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang - UN By Matt Murphy - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view