New York: China’s “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslims in its Xinjiang region may constitute crimes against humanity, the outgoing UN human rights chief said in a long-awaited report on Wednesday.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who has faced criticism from some diplomats and rights groups for being too soft on China, released the report just minutes before her four-year term ended. She visited China in May.

China has vigorously denied any abuses in Xinjiang and issued a 131-page response to the 48-page UN report. The UN Human Rights Office said in the report that serious human rights violations have been committed” in Xinjiang “in the context of the government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-’extremism’ strategies”.

“The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups ... may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity,” the UN office said on its website. It recommended the Chinese government take prompt steps to release all those detained in training centres, prisons or detention facilities.

“There are credible indications of violations of reproductive rights through the coercive enforcement of family planning policies since 2017,” the office said.

It added that a lack of government data “makes it difficult to draw conclusions on the full extent of current enforcement of these policies and associated violations of reproductive rights.” Rights groups accuse Beijing of abuses against Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority that numbers around 10 million in the western region of Xinjiang, including the mass use of forced labour in internment camps. The United States has accused China of genocide.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin described the report as “completely illegal and void”.

“This proves once again that the OHCHR has become a thug and accomplice of the U.S. and the West,” he said during a regular daily briefing on Thursday in Beijing, where he was asked repeatedly about the report.

Bachelet, who is from Chile, said her report took “considerable work and review” and emerged in the final moments of her tenure because she wanted to deal with input from the Chinese government last week.

“Dialogue and engagement is about trying to build trust incrementally - even when it seems unlikely. My own experience in Chile showed me the value of this approach,” she said.

“To be perfectly honest, the politicization of these serious human rights issues by some States did not help,” she added. “They made the task more difficult, they made the engagement more difficult and they made the trust-building and the ability to really have an impact on the ground more difficult.”

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2022

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