Now, a report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet could bolster the push for accountability and elevate the voices of survivors and their families in a way the UN system has not previously done — creating the potential for a turning point for how the international community, and top UN officials, have handled these accounts.
But the report itself appears to be bogged down in review, following what’s already been months of delay, with Bachelet on Thursday saying her office was “trying” to release it before the end of her term on August 31 as promised in June, but they were still reviewing “substantial input” from China, which she said was granted access to make “factual comments” as per standard procedure.
Releasing a strong report — and acting on it — would mean going up against China, which has amassed what multiple UN insiders and experts call significant power among countries within the UN system, built by leveraging its economic might and championing an alternative vision of human rights — as well as systematically pushing back on any effort, however small, to challenge its human rights record, including the High Commissioner’s report.
China’s Foreign Ministry has already publicly decried the report, with a spokesman late last month calling on the High Commissioner’s office to “respect the serious concern of the Chinese people and everyone speaking for justice in the world, stand on the right side of history and reject publishing an assessment on Xinjiang based on false information and false accusations.”
At the Human Rights Council, the UN’s foremost rights body, Beijing rigorously works to counter efforts by countries to call it to account, using “incessant lobbying” and leverage such as access to vaccines, according to a Geneva-based Western diplomat.
“There are a lot of countries who are going to be worried by Chinese reactions or (fall) prey to Chinese lobbying,” the diplomat added, describing this as a key reason why a majority could not be reached in the council to establish a probe.
A rotating body of 47 nations elected from each of the world’s regions, the council can agree by consensus or majority vote on resolutions to establish investigative mechanisms like those launched to look into alleged violations in places like Myanmar, Libya and, more recently, Ukraine.
The situation “clearly is an outlier,” said Stephen Rapp, a former war crimes prosecutor and US ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice. “And that is a reflection, not of the evidence, but of China’s political power.”
“There is far more than the necessary credible evidence to justify a human rights inquiry … and (the evidence) is stronger and more widespread, with a larger number of victims than multiple situations where there have been overwhelming votes to establish commissions of inquiry,” he added.
A spokesperson for the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations in Geneva said in an emailed response to CNN that during her visit to China, Bachelet “observed with her own eyes China’s human rights path and achievements. She experienced in person what a real Xinjiang is like: a region that enjoys security, social stability and good development, and its people live and work in peace and happiness.”
“China firmly opposes the attempt to smear and attack China by fabricating disinformation. The just position of China has gained strong support of the international community. The attempt of a small number of countries to use Xinjiang-related issues to carry out political manipulation, tarnish China’s image and contain and suppress China is doomed to fail,” the spokesperson said.
Beijing has previously said “respecting and protecting freedom of religious belief is the basic policy of the (Chinese Communist Party) and the Chinese government” and that the religious believers and non-believers “enjoy the same political, economic, social and cultural rights.”
“The claims of ‘genocide,’ ‘forced labor’ and ‘religious oppression’ are sheer lies,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said to a Human Rights Council meeting in February. “Xinjiang’s door is open, and we welcome people from all over the world who harbor no bias to come to Xinjiang for visits and exchanges.”
China is far from alone in seeking to use its influence and diplomacy to block criticism and investigation of its rights record in the UN, and powerful countries can typically be difficult to hold to account, but it is among the more effective and singularly focused in its pushback, observers say.
It has also linked its efforts to a larger struggle over the purpose of the UN itself, as far as how countries should monitor and hold each other to account.
“Sure, there’s elements of coercion, diplomatic lobbying, alliances, et cetera, but there’s also, deep down, different conceptions of human rights,” Frédéric Mégret, co-director of the Center for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at Canada’s McGill University.
“(China) will emphasize ‘constructive dialogue,’ (as in) states between themselves should engage in constructive dialogue and make polite suggestions, but they should not be finger-pointing, they should not be laying blame,” he said.
Even as different visions for the UN and its Geneva-based Human Rights Council play out within its halls, several UN insiders and legal experts CNN has spoken with say how the UN responds to these allegations is a test of its credibility as a rights protector.
“Our view, and the view of a number of countries that share our concern, is that when we look back a decade or more from now, if nothing happens (at the UN), we will see this as the largest unaddressed human rights catastrophe of the past 20 years,” a second Western diplomat in Geneva told CNN.
“The gap between the scale and the scope of what’s going on and the extent to which it has been publicly, officially and formally dealt with (at the UN) is truly remarkable. We are very conscious of this,” said the diplomat.
The deadlock between countries in the Human Rights Council over how to respond to the allegations is one reason why those who have sought to hold China to account — including the overseas family members of Uyghur people in Xinjiang — are closely watching the release of Bachelet’s report.
In September 2021, Bachelet said her office was “finalizing its assessment,” while a spokesperson in December said they hoped to publish in the coming weeks.
When asked during a press conference Thursday why the report was delayed, Bachelet said she “wanted to prioritize” visiting the country and “convey directly those allegations” to officials — and her office in early March reached an agreement with Beijing for a visit.
The trip, which she described previously as “an opportunity to hold direct discussions,” not the investigatory mission she had long called for, was decried by advocates and leading scholars on Xinjiang at the time.
Bachelet discussed the visit during a session of the Human Rights Council in June, when she said she was not able to speak to any Uyghurs currently detained or their families during the visit, and added there were “limitations” due to China’s Covid protocols.
Bachelet said she met with senior leaders and officials and “raised concerns regarding the human rights situation of the Uyghur and other predominately Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, including broad arbitrary detention and patterns of abuse both in the VETC (vocational education and training center) system and in other detention facilities.”
She also mentioned “frank exchanges” with survivors and civil society representatives “including outside the country” whose information and perspectives are “vital.”
When asked this week if she had been under pressure regarding the report’s publication, Bachelet said her office was “always under pressure, from various sides, from all sides I would say, in all situations … but our work is guided by human rights methodology and the facts on the ground, and objective legal analysis.”
“I have been under tremendous pressure to publish or not to publish, but I will not publish or withhold information due to any such pressure,” she said.
The Office of the High Commissioner did not reply to a request for comment from CNN.
Adrian Zenz, a leading researcher on Xinjiang who was involved in the publication of caches of leaked documents that have provided extensive detail about the operations of the detention systems, said he was contacted by Bachelet’s office regarding his research and that her research team appeared to be skilled and “highly informed.”
But how that translates into a report is another question. Experts say the standard for verification of specific claims is high for such reports, while key details like scale of atrocities may be difficult to corroborate — especially as China has blocked all meaningful access for investigators, and those with direct knowledge may fear retribution from Beijing for going on the record.
“But the point is that the UN plays an important role as a catalyst in other ways,” Philip Alston, a professor of law at New York University and former UN Special Rapporteur, said. “If the report is strong, it greatly helps the Uyghur campaigns in various places around the world, it should spur at least some key governments to take a stronger stand, and it would ideally persuade the Chinese that they need to further ameliorate their policies.”
For others, as the clock ticks down to its expected release, it’s also a reminder of how much time has already passed.
“It’s hard to reconcile the (the UN response) with the urgency that I feel as a direct member of the family,” Asat said.
“You start to question the integrity of the system as a whole, but you also must still try to find a way, ultimately, to work within the system,” she said. “Because whether we like it or not, this is the only body we have.”