UN Finally Weighs in on China’s Breach of International Human Rights Laws

For months now, we have all heard that “this report” or “that report” would prove to be the most damning assessment yet on China’s version of the war on terrorism in Xinjiang. The far western province, bordering 8 different countries, including war-torn Afghanistan, is now infamous. Thousands of Muslims have been rounded-up, some due to legitimate terrorist ties (the East Turkistan Islamic Movement – or ETIM — caused bedlam there between 2009-16 and is a real terrorist organization), blacklisted, censored, and surveilled for years. It’s a real-life version of Minority Report, where Muslim men with full beards who read the Quran are considered suspect; women who have more children than allowed by the state are labeled “extremists” and sent to re-education facilities.

The State Department says China is committing genocide against these people. President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law this summer as part of the official response to that.

The United Nations – which usually walks on eggshells around China – called Xinjiang an international human rights crime. Given the UNs general softness on China, their report is the most damning of all reports yet on China’s actions in that province. China worked hard to prevent the UN report from being published. Outgoing UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet did delay the report until the final hour when she was headed out the door.

Read the report in its entirety here.

The 48-page report, published on August 31, says China has broken international human rights laws. The two most egregious human rights rules broken by the Chinese is so-called “deprivation of liberty” and “arbitrary detention”.

The next step, if someone dares, is to take Xinjiang officials to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Is that next? No one knows, of course. The case has been made, however. It’s now a matter of who in charge in Xinjiang gets called on the mat first, if at all.

The report states that China closed its vocational education and training centers (VETC) in 2019 (something the UN could not confirm, despite Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner herself, having visited the Kashgar Experimental School, a closed VETC, during her visit in May), but notes that it has replaced them with prisons. They nearly tripled the size of its prison camps.

China fired back in a 131-page rebuttal. They sounded taken aback by it all. Bachelet, they said, never mentioned coerced labor issues and gross human rights violations in a press conference she had with reporters in Guangzhou before leaving the country.

Still, the UN recommended that China release all individuals held arbitrarily in Xinjiang, whether in a VETC studying Mandarin and singing the Chinese national anthem until they’re blue in the face, or breaking rocks somewhere at a quartz mine  — for pay? The UN doesn’t say.

The UN also recommended Beijing investigate allegations of “torture, sexual violence, ill-treatment, forced medical treatment, and forced labor and reports of deaths while in custody.” This is unlikely, given China denies any of this has ever occurred on its watch.

As if knowing China won’t do much to remedy the situation, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) at the UN had recommendations for global businesses. These included:

  • Enhanced due diligence of human rights and report on their findings;
  • Strengthen human rights risk assessment in their Xinjiang outsourced supply and labor pool; and
  • Strengthen assessments of investments in companies working in the China surveillance and security tech sectors

Some Xinjiang companies have been banned from U.S. supply chains.

Hoshine Silicon Industries is one of them. They provide polysilicon that goes into making microchips and solar wafers for the solar industry. American companies can’t buy products connected to Hoshine but the two largest investment firms in the country can. Vanguard and BlackRock own about a million shares in Hoshine to this day. They should be banned from investing in companies tied to Xinjiang’s human rights crimes.

In 2015, then-president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, signed a trade agreement with China to eliminate double taxation. It would later become a free trade agreement, opening Chile’s market to tariff-free China wood products like furniture, home appliances, textiles and clothing, among other things.

Notes About Xinjiang’s ‘Vocational Training Schools’

The crackdowns in Xinjiang began after waves of terrorist attacks. China responded with its “Strike Hard” policy. Part of that policy was a no holds barred approach to monitor every Muslim and bring in Han Chinese to replace them. Muslims used to be nearly two-thirds of the population in Xinjiang in the 1950s. That ratio is now closer to 50/50 and shrinking in favor of the Hans. Muslims are a shrinking part of that population.

In a 2019 government report, China said “since 2014, Xinjiang has destroyed 1,588 violent and terrorist gangs, arrested 12,995 terrorists, seized 2,052 explosive devices, punished 30,645 people for 4,858 illegal religious activities, and confiscated 345,229 copies of illegal religious materials”. China has asserted the success of its approach, reporting that there have been no terrorist incidents in Xinjiang since 2016.

To get there required VETCs and prison camps. Arguably, many people were captured in this massive dragnet, never let on to why they were being held, and had no legal recourse to fight it. To Xinjiang and Beijing, they were all extremists. There is no way that a majority of the people rounded up were hard-nosed terrorists, or members of ETIM. The UN never makes this calculation, so readers are left to assume that everyone in the VETCs, and surely in the prisons, are terrorists, or related to terrorists – such as spouses and parents.

China defined extremists as basically anyone in traditional Muslim garb, without defining an extremist as a violent extremist, which is the UN approach to such definitions.

The UN said that to China, an extremist in Xinjiang is basically any Muslim who is against authority, looks too Muslim, reads the Quran in public, or has religious-political conversations on WeChat, China’s biggest messaging platform.  These cases were considered “minor” cases of extremism. And the perpetrators were sent to the VETCs. Harder criminals were sent to prisons.

The VETCs were where most of the known violations occurred. The prisons are a black box. With new prisons being built, no one will be allowed inside. China will just tell the UN that these are all tied to ETIM and other terrorist groups. It seems China thinks there are a lot of terrorists still roaming the streets and rural valleys of Xinjiang, despite saying their “Strike Hard” approach had worked.

The 2019 China government document on “Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang” states that the VETCs are “residential”, and that referral follows a decision by a court or public security officials, rather than being some voluntary worker trainer course.

VETC detainment was an alternative sanction to a prison sentence.

Individuals interviewed by OHCHR who had been placed in VETC facilities described being taken to such facilities by public security officials. The majority of the interviewees were apprehended between 2017 and 2019 and first take to a police station. They said that they were told that they had to go to a VETC facility and were not given an alternative option, or reason. Lengths of stays in the VETC facilities varied, but generally interviewees spent between two months and 18 months inside with no exit. None of them were informed of the length of their stays when they were taken to the facility. About half of the interviewees reported that they were allowed occasional visits from family, or phone calls, but always with a guard present. Others said they had no contact with family and so assumed their families did not know where they were. Or if they were even alive. The UN, therefore, said that this method of lockdown in the VETC facilities was a “deprivation of liberty” under the law.

Under international human rights law, “deprivation of liberty” occurs when a person “is being held without his or her free consent.” A deprivation of liberty, within the meaning of international human rights law, can occur in any type of location and does not need to be officially labeled as such.

One interviewee described his experience as follows: “I was not told what I was there for and how long I would be there. I was asked to confess a crime, but I did not know what I was supposed to confess to.”

A number of interviewees described being “sentenced” in the VETC facility, and some described being brought to the “court” in groups. Some persons interviewed reported being required to “choose” their offenses from a list of some 75 or 72 “crimes”.

The VETC facilities have been sold by China as merely re-education camps, designed to snap rural Muslims out of their “old way” of thinking, and turn them into good Chinese citizens and workers. But what happened inside was not like any vocational school anyone would want to attend. Beatings, sexual abuse, and forced medical procedures were common. For those inside, it was like being abducted from an alien race with family members not knowing when – or if — they were coming back. That is, if they knew they were alive in the first place.

As one person described it, “every neighbor had someone in the camps or ‘taken to study’, as they call it.” Individuals interviewed by OHCHR were held in VETC facilities in at least eight different geographic locations spread across Xinjiang. And two-thirds of the twenty-six former detainees interviewed reported ill-treatment that the UN defined as torture, including inside of those facilities and not in the prisons. Their accounts included being beaten with electric batons while strapped in a so-called “tiger chair”; being subjected to interrogation with water being poured on their faces; prolonged solitary confinement; and being forced to sit motionless on small stools for prolonged periods of time. Several interviewees described being shackled during parts of their period of confinement in VETC facilities. They also spoke about constant surveillance and the lights in the dorms/cells being switched on throughout the night, depriving them of sleep. Interviewees described how people in the dorms/cells would have to take two-hour nightshifts to ensure cellmates were not praying or otherwise breaking rules at night-time. Some noted that they were not allowed to speak their own language and could not pray. VETC “trainees” were taught Chinese Communist Party “red songs”. From one interview: “We were forced to sing patriotic song after patriotic song every day, as loud as possible and until it hurts, until our faces become red and our veins appeared on our face.” Almost all interviewees described either injections, pills or both being administered regularly, as well as blood samples being regularly collected in these vocational education facilities. Interviewees were consistent in their descriptions of how the administered medicines made them feel drowsy. One interviewee described the process as follows: “We received one tablet a day. It looked like aspirin. We were lined up and someone with gloves systematically checked our mouths to make sure we swallowed it.” Some also spoke of various forms of sexual violence, including some instances of rape, affecting mainly women. These accounts included having been forced by guards to perform oral sex in the context of an interrogation and various forms of sexual humiliation, including forced nudity.

Back to Xinjiang prisons, the UN admits that they are being expanded upon. The Urumqi No.3 Detention Center in Dabancheng has increased considerably in size from 2018 to 2020, with the number of buildings on the compound increased from 40 in 2018 to 68 in 2019, the year the VETCs closed. By 2020, the number of prisons there hit 92.

‘Coerced Labor’

Is there slave labor happening inside these VETC facilities? The UN report does not use that word. Instead, they use the term “coerced labor” – which is defined as people forced to do jobs against their free will. It does not say whether they are paid. If they are in a VETC, or a prison, and being coerced to work, as the UN puts it, then where is the incentive for Xinjiang hiring entities – government or private – to pay these people in the first place? The report leads one to believe that they are paid, but does not confirm this.

The U.S. has hammered China on the forced labor issue, finally bringing Europe on board roughly two years ago. On April 20, 2022, the National People’s Congress of China approved ratification of the Forced Labor Convention from the 1930s and the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention from the 1950s, both from the International Labor Organization (ILO). China had already ratified other ILO conventions on labor, including proper treatment of workers without discrimination based on race and religion, and for free choice of employment. On paper, China is no stranger to these rules and considers it a necessary part of conducting business with the Western world.

Beijing has closely linked its poverty alleviation plans with its counter-terrorism operations. Government studies have alluded to the perceived nexus between religious “extremism” and poverty in Xinjiang, noting that in areas identified as poor even by that provinces measures, “terrorists, separatists and extremists prevail (and) incite the public to resist learning the standard spoken and written Chinese language, reject modern science, and refuse to improve their vocational skills, economic conditions, and the ability to better their own lives.” As a result, people have fallen into long-term poverty. It is against this backdrop that reports have emerged, since at least 2018, of practices of forced labor.

The allegations begin with placement in VETC facilities. Upon “graduation”, people are put into certain jobs – which were unmentioned in the report. Many workers from the VETC “graduation classes” are sent to other parts of China, known as labor transfer schemes, the UN report stated.

With respect to those allegations of forced labor stemming from the VETC facilities (ironically, prison labor was not mentioned at all) UN report authors note that the Chinese government’s White Papers and other public statements on this topic show a “clear link between VETC facilities and employment schemes.” For example, a 2019 White Paper on “Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang” states that “many of the trainees who have completed their studies in education and training centers have gone on to find employment in factories or enterprises”. Official statements refer to a “seamless connection” between the VETCs and employment. It also appears that companies in Xinjiang have been incentivized to hire Uyghurs from the VETC system as “trainees”. For example, an official notice from the Kashgar Public Information Office in 2018 stated that it had plans to transfer 100,000 individuals from vocational training to employment, while offering substantial subsidies to enterprises willing to hire VETC “students”. This suggests trainees are like “interns” and transfers may be paid if the government is willing to subsidize their wages, or outright pay their wages.

Lastly, the UN stated that some publicly available information they have reviewed suggests China employs “various coercive methods” to secure workers.

CPA’s Response

CPA has long advocated for Chinese surveillance tech companies – used to create a Big Brother security state in Xinjiang (if not all of China’s big cities) – be banned from accessing U.S. technology. CPA has also advocated for forced-labor companies banned by Customs and Border Patrol, like Hoshine, to be off limits to Wall Street. This has not happened yet. Now that the UN report has declared Xinjiang a real human rights violation, with legal ramifications plausible, Washington should add any Xinjiang company to the China list of capital market sanctions.

“The UN report is a damning account of what the rest of the world has documented for years: China is committing genocide in Xinjiang,” said Michael Stumo, CEO of CPA. “Immediately, Congress and the Biden administration should revoke Permanent Normal Trade Relations status with China, just as they did when Russia invaded Ukraine. They should also decouple China from our financial markets, including requiring the SEC to de-register Chinese companies from our stock markets and over the counter markets, and require mutual funds to exclude Chinese companies from their portfolios. The CCP is a criminal government that should be decoupled from the regular international order.”

About the report

In 2017, OHCHR began receiving increasing complaints from civil society groups that members of the Uyghur and other Muslim minority communities were missing or had disappeared in Xinjiang. During its review of China’s periodic report in August 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed alarm over numerous reports of the detention of large numbers of Uyghurs under the pretext of countering religious extremism. In light of the breadth and gravity of the allegations, and the nature of information received, OHCHR tried to verify claims on the ground since 2018.

The report relies on third-party NGO reports, open-source reports by news organizations, official Chinese documents and 40 interviews with individuals with direct or first-hand knowledge of the situation in Xinjiang. Twenty-six of the interviewees stated they had been detained or had worked in various facilities across Xinjiang since 2016. In each case, OHCHR assessed the reliability and credibility of these persons, the veracity of the information conveyed, and its coherence with information obtained from other people and sources.

On March 17, 2021, OHCHR formally submitted to the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations in Geneva a request for specific sets of information, detailing various areas of particular interest so they could at least counter the complaints. The UN did not receive a response.

China had extended an invitation to the High Commissioner to visit in September 2018, but an agreement to visit was only reached in March 2022.  It was agreed with the Government of China that High Commissioner Bachelet would finally get to see Xinjiang, but only after deployment of China team to “prepare for her visit.” Bachelet was in China between April and May.

The assessment contained in this UN report is based on China’s obligations under international human rights law, contained principally in the human rights treaties to which China is a State Party.

The UN report is the end result of a five-year investigation into Xinjiang and all the stories circulating about wanton human rights violations there of ethnic minorities. The UN report confirmed China was breaking international human rights law, a criminal act.  Countries and companies can be sued for human rights crimes in the International Criminal Court.


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