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UN report says China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After long delays, the United Nations has offered an assessment of China's treatment of Uyghurs.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For weeks, it wasn't clear if the Human Rights Report would be published at all, but it came out yesterday, just minutes before the U.N.'s top human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, stepped down from her post.

INSKEEP: NPR's China correspondent Emily Feng is covering this story. Emily, welcome.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why would there have been suspense over publishing this report at all?

FENG: Well, there was a lot of effort from China to stymie this report. About 10 months ago, Bachelet said her office was going to compile this report on Xinjiang, but China quickly tried to stymie the report. Reuters actually reported earlier this summer that China was circulating a petition to bury it. And then Bachelet herself admitted last month that she had received, quote, "substantial input" from China, who is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and she was under, quote, "tremendous pressure" to publish or not to publish the report. Zhang Jun, who is China's ambassador to the U.N., yesterday made no bones about the fact that China did not want this report out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHANG JUN: We all know so well that the so-called Xinjiang issue is a completely fabricated lie out of political motivations. Its purpose definitely is to undermine China's stability.

FENG: But as you mentioned, literally about 10 minutes before Bachelet's tenure was officially over at midnight in Geneva, the report still came out, and it actually went way beyond the admittedly low expectations that people had for it.

INSKEEP: Oh. Well, then what did it say?

FENG: It was very systematic. Xinjiang, just as a reminder, is in western China. It's where authorities have detained and imprisoned at least hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities under initiatives it claims are to combat terrorism and promote economic development. But this U.N. report found that China's counterterrorism laws are overly broad, that ethnic minorities are detained for, quote, "apparently no legal basis, against their will," that the extensive policing and surveillance in the region appears discriminatory against certain religious, ethnic and cultural groups, and that some of the harsh treatment and sexual abuse of Uyghurs in detention amounts to torture.

But the report does skirt around one big question, and that is whether all of this that I've just described amounts to genocide, which is a designation Uyghur activists were for pushing for. But that's just not mentioned in the report at all.

INSKEEP: OK, so they don't use the G word, but they give a lot of details. Does this report make any difference?

FENG: Likely not, and that's because the report's recommendations are nearly completely reliant on cooperation with China, which has already condemned the report. Bachelet's report does not call for a formal U.N. investigation but rather asks China to self-investigate and provide more information to international groups. I spoke to Sophie Richardson - she's the China director at advocacy group Human Rights Watch - about what that means.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Three decades of exactly those kinds of dialogues have conveyed to Beijing a sense of impunity. They have never served to hold the Chinese government accountable for progressively more serious human rights violations or impose any consequences for committing them.

FENG: That being said, it's still a big deal that the report came out and that it was so detailed in its accusations against China because this is now officially the U.N. stance on human rights conditions in Xinjiang, and so it will be much harder for China going forward to paint an alternate reality of what it claims is actually happening there.

INSKEEP: Emily, thanks for your insights, as always.

FENG: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Good to talk with you. NPR's Emily Feng. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.