Uyghur detainees in 2017 (Photo: Wikimedia)
On 31 August, minutes before the end of the now-former UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet’s mandate, her office finally published its long-overdue report on the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
It has been widely-received as a historic assessment of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.
The report presented damning findings about mass arbitrary detention, torture, forced labour, sexual and gender-based violence, repressive surveillance, birth-prevention measures, family separation, and other appalling atrocities which it concluded “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.
These findings confirm what the European Parliament and human rights groups have highlighted for years.
In June, following the leaked Xinjiang Police Files, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to recognise that the Chinese government’s actions against the Uyghurs constitute crimes against humanity and represent a serious risk of genocide, joining similar resolutions by nine other parliamentary bodies worldwide.
As MEPs and chairs of its Uyghur Friendship Group, we have been at the forefront of calls for a stronger EU response to the Chinese government’s abominable human rights record.
Our recommendations in the June resolution were clear. The EU can no longer stand idly by while the Chinese government continues to show a blatant disregard for the most fundamental human rights.
The UN report’s true value will therefore be determined by how it shapes the reaction of governments, UN bodies, and the global business community. For the report to be a turning point, its findings should be met by the EU with a more principled and human rights-centred approach to China which prioritises justice and accountability measures.
On the global stage, the EU must consistently push back against Beijing’s threats to the UN human rights system and the international rules-based order.
At the UN Human Rights Council, the EU must call for a special session or urgent debate with the aim of establishing a Commission of Inquiry to independently examine the treatment of Uyghurs.
Furthermore, the EU should urge the UN Office on Genocide Prevention to immediately conduct an assessment of atrocities committed — including genocide and crimes against humanity.
But most importantly, the EU must use the autonomous mechanisms at its disposal in response to the Chinese government’s atrocity crimes.
As three decades of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue have failed to bring about positive change, the EU can no longer rely on such fruitless exercises to present powerful challenges to Beijing’s threats to human rights.
Sanctions on individuals and entities
First, additional targeted sanctions must be placed upon complicit individuals and entities, raising the costs for those directly responsible. This must be done in coordination with like-minded partners globally.
To end corporate complicity in these abuses, the EU should further introduce a human rights due diligence law and a strong mechanism to ban the import of forced labour products. The European Parliament has made strong recommendations on these matters, and we urge the Council and Commission to incorporate these.
Third, the EU and its member States must do more to support Uyghurs in the diaspora that are targets of China’s transnational repression, and take urgent steps to protect Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples from being forcibly returned to China.
The UN report provides a momentum for real, substantial action to be taken and to provide long-overdue accountability for those responsible and justice for the millions of Uyghur victims.
To miss this opportunity would be a historically shameful decision.
As a Union that is bound by its treaty to protect and promote human rights, we must live up to these commitments and take all necessary steps to put an end to these atrocities.