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Illustration by iStock; Security Management

UN Investigation Finds China Committed ‘Serious Human Rights Violations’ in Xinjiang

The People’s Republic of China may have committed “crimes against humanity” for its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups, the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) said in a long-delayed report published this week.

“Serious human rights violations have been committed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in the context of the government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-‘extremism’ strategies,” the OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China, found. “The implementation of these strategies, and associated policies in XUAR has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights. These patterns of restrictions are characterized by a discriminatory component, as the underlying acts often directly or indirectly affect Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities.”

The OHCHR said many of the violations that it found while investigating allegations in the XUAR stemmed from China’s anti-terrorism law system that is “deeply problematic from the perspective of international human rights norms and standards.” This is because it contains vague concepts open to wide interpretation by officials who can then apply investigative, preventive, and coercive powers to carry them out with little oversight.

“This framework, which is vulnerable to discriminatory application, has in practice led to the large-scale arbitrary deprivation of liberty of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities in XUAR in so-called VETC and other facilities, at least between 2017 and 2019,” the OHCHR wrote. “Even if the VETC system has since been reduced in scope or wound up, as the government has claimed, the laws and policies that underpin it remain in place.”

In a 131-page response, China said it opposed the UN assessment and that the findings ignored human rights achievements and the “devastating damage caused by terrorism and extremism to the human rights of people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.” 

Terrorism Laws

Between 1990 and the end of 2016, the Chinese government claims that separatist, terrorist, and extremist forces launched thousands of terror attacks in Xinjiang, which led to the deaths of numerous people and caused property damage. Chinese authorities also became concerned about the number of Uyghurs potentially fighting as part of armed groups in Afghanistan and Syria.

In response, China enacted its “Strike Hard” campaign to combat terrorism, extremism, and separatism in XUAR. It also enacted the Counterterrorism Law and the Xinjiang Implementing Measures for the Counterterrorism Law, launched formal regulations about religion and “de-extremification,” and began creating Vocational Education and Training Centers (VETC facilities), where individuals can be placed for deradicalization and re-education, according to the OHCHR.

“A placement in such facility thus becomes an available consequence of having committed any type of act that can be construed as ‘terrorism’ or ‘extremism,’ regardless of whether the person is also criminally prosecuted,” the OHCHR wrote. “There are further concerns that the law fails to provide sufficient legal certainty on core elements of the ‘education and transformation’ system itself, such as the permissible duration for such residential programs in VETC facilities or the criteria or procedure according to which individuals are or can be deemed appropriately ‘educated’ and thereby liable for release.”

The investigation did not say how many individuals have been detained in VETC facilities, but it did reveal that China’s anti-terrorism law system largely grants discretion to officials to interpret and apply methods for assessing conduct are prone to subjectivity; there is a lack of evidence that empirically ties indicators of conduct to terrorism or violent extremism; legal consequences attached to this conduct are not sufficiently regulated; and authorities are given broad powers with limited safeguards and no independent judicial oversight to monitor how they are carried out.

“Individually and cumulatively, these factors present significant concerns as to the system’s compliance with international human rights law, establishing a framework that is vulnerable to arbitrary and discriminatory application, unjustifiably limits the exercise of legitimate rights, potentially subjects individuals to arbitrary detention, and fails to provide adequate safeguards to protect against abuse,” according to the UN report. “In the context in which this system is implemented and by associating ‘extremism’ with certain religious and cultural practices, it also carries inherent risk of unnecessary, disproportionate, and discriminatory application to the ethnic and religious communities concerned.”

Surveillance and Control

Along with subjective terrorism laws that could be used to wrongfully detain individuals, the OHCHR also found that these laws are accompanied with extensive forms of surveillance and control of people.

Public security agencies and officials are given broad discretion under China’s Criminal Procedure Law to use investigative techniques—like electronic surveillance—and implement restrictive measures on individuals.

“These broad legal powers provide legal underpinning for what has been alleged to be a sophisticated, large-scale, and systematized surveillance system in practice, implemented across the entire region both online and offline,” according to the UN report. “Available descriptions suggest that this system has been developed in partnership with private security and technology companies which supply the requisite technology, including for in-person and electronic monitoring in the form of biometric data collection, including iris scans and facial imagery. Such monitoring has reportedly been driven by an ever-present network of surveillance cameras, including deploying facial recognition capabilities; a vast network of ‘convenience police stations’ and other checkpoints; and broad access to people’s personal communication devices and financial histories, coupled with analytical use of big data technologies.”

Convenience police stations began to appear in 2016, and they function as security checkpoints for ethnic community members to be checked at roadblocks and airports while others are allowed to pass through a separate travel channel.

Additionally, individuals who are designated by officials as terrorism or extremism suspects are also subject to a host of electronic surveillance measures that are carried out by different security and technology providers.

“For example, telecommunications and internet providers must put information content monitoring systems in place and provide public security officials with decryption and other technical support, and local governments are required to use technology, alongside other measures, to prevent the spread of terrorism and ‘extremism,’ and to ensure that ‘public areas of the city as needed’ are equipped with ‘public security video image information systems,’” the OHCHR explained.

Information that is now available in the public domain shared details about the police database that indicates widespread surveillance of hundreds of thousands of members of the “ethnic language population,” police bulletins about individuals who can be flagged for detention, and a police application on aggregating data about people deemed potentially threatening based on their behavior or select indicators. 

“Taken together, these suggest key elements of a consistent pattern of invasive electronic surveillance that can be, and are, directed at the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim populations, whereby certain behaviors, such as downloading of Islamic religious materials or communicating with people abroad, can be automatically monitored and flagged to law enforcement as possible signs of ‘extremism’ requiring police follow-up, including potential referral to a VETC facility or other detention facilities,” the UN report explained.

These findings raise several human rights concerns, the OHCHR said because everyone has rights to protection against unlawful or arbitrary interference with their privacy, home, family, and correspondence.

“The broad powers given to public officials…generally, with limited independent oversight and procedural safeguards against abuse, are already of considerable concern, and are exacerbated by the far-reaching and highly invasive methods of surveillance,” according to the report. “The heightened focus on Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities through the lens of ‘extremism’ is also likely to be discriminatory in intent and/or effect.”

Intimidation and Reprisal

While the OHCHR’s investigation mainly focused on domestic activities in China, it also looked at how minorities were treated after they left China. Two-thirds of the individuals the UN interviewed said Chinese officials had attempted to intimidate them—often in the form of threatening phone calls—or their family members.

“Over the past few years, credible information has been received about members of the Uyghur community living abroad in several countries, having been forcibly returned, or being placed at risk of forcible return to China, in breach of the prohibition under international law of refoulement,” according to the report. “The UN human rights mechanisms, including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as well as the Special Procedures, have expressed concerns about reports of forcible return of Uyghurs to China, and have recalled the human rights and refugee law obligations of both China and third countries in such circumstances.”

For instance, the FBI is currently warning security practitioners in the United States about nation-state actors who have hired private investigators to carry out transnational repression—including pressuring activists or aiding in removing individuals back to their homeland.

“The Iranians and the Chinese—both have been successful in getting their hands on those dissidents, either by luring them back to their home country, forcing them back to their home country, or in some instances literally snatching them and grabbing them and putting them on a plane back to their home country,” says James Dennehy, special agent in charge of the FBI New York Field Office’s Counterintelligence and Cyber Division, in an interview with Security Management. 

Future Changes

Along with releasing its findings, the OHCHR made 14 recommendations to address the violations and points of concerns it raised in the report. These include steps to release all individuals being arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in XUAR and conducting a full national security legal review.

China should undertake a “full review of the legal framework governing national security, counter-terrorism, and minority rights in XUAR to ensure their compliance with binding international human rights law, and urgently repeal all discriminatory laws, policies, and practices against Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities in XUAR, in particular those that have led to the serious human rights violations as detailed in this assessment,” the OHCHR wrote.

Other recommendations include ensuring that surveillance—physical and digital—of individuals complies with strict tests of legality, necessity, and proportionality without infringing on fundamental rights or freedom of individuals, as well as ending intimidation and reprisals against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities for any advocacy.

The UNHRC also made specific recommendations for the business community to take all possible steps to meet their responsibility to respect human rights across activities and business relationships. For the security business community, the OHCHR said these organizations should strengthen their human rights risk assessments and evaluate whether their products and services could lead to or contribute to adverse human rights impacts.

This guidance stands out because the XUAR region of China is rich with resources of coal, gas, oil, lithium, zinc, and lead, as well as being a major source of agricultural production for cotton, and it is part of the supply chain for many companies. 

The OHCHR “recommends to the international community that it support efforts to strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights in the XUAR region in follow-up to these recommendations,” according to the report. “States should further refrain from returning members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities to China who are at risk of refoulement and provide humanitarian assistance, including medical and psycho-social support, to victims in the States in which they are located.”


The OHCHR first received reports about potential human rights violations in XUAR in 2017 when members of the Uyghur and predominantly Muslim ethnic minority communities were reported missing or disappeared.

The next year, the report details that another UN office saw a “dramatic” increase in missing persons cases that coincided with the Chinese government’s creation of “re-education” camps in XUAR that it said were necessary to counter terrorism and extremism while promoting job creation, eliminating poverty, and creating development in the region. Others, however, said the camps were used to torture, commit sexual violence against, and require forced labor from detainees.

The OHCHR then launched an effort to investigate these claims, beginning a multi-year process of reviewing Chinese government materials and legal apparatus and 40 in-depth interviews with individuals with direct knowledge of the situation in the XUAR (26 of which said they had been detained in XUAR) that culminated in this week’s report that was released on the eve of the end of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s four-year term.

Human rights advocates around the world welcomed the release of the report, though it is unclear what—if any—specific action other nations might take in response to the findings.

“The report is pretty damning, and a strong indictment on China’s crimes against humanity,” said Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur lawyer whose brother is imprisoned in Xinjiang, in an interview with the Associated Press. “It’s a really long-awaited recognition of the Uyghurs and their unimaginable suffering, coming from the world’s most authoritative voice on human rights.”