The UN Shouldn’t Let the Olympics’ Celebration of Uyghur Repression Go Unchallenged

Olympic torch is brought into the stadium by Dinigeer Yilamujiang and Zhao Jiawen during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Friday, February 4, 2022, in Beijing.

The honor of carrying the Olympic flame and lighting the cauldron at the Games’ opening ceremonies is typically reserved for people hosts wish to hold up as embodiments of excellence. But the Chinese government and the organizers of the 2022 Winter Olympics saw it differently, opting for Dinigeer Yilamujiang to fulfill this role. She is a member of the Uyghur community against which the government is committing crimes against humanity. There is no doubt about Yilamujiang’s athletic skills – but there is also no doubt about the government’s message.

As these Games end they are hopelessly tarnished, not only by the Chinese government’s atrocities but also its grotesque gestures to flaunt impunity. The heat and light of a torch for Uyghurs should be lit in Geneva as the United Nations Human Rights Council goes into session on February 28.

The Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the two U.N. bodies centrally responsible for protecting and promoting human rights worldwide, have been aware of Beijing’s campaign against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim communities for several years. Journalists, diplomats, and human rights researchers have documented mass arbitrary detention, torture, family separations, cultural persecution, and other human rights violations since 2017.

U.N. human rights experts and Human Rights Council member states have been sounding the alarm and calling for U.N.-backed investigations. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, first requested unfettered access to Xinjiang, often referred to as the Uyghur region, in 2018 to initiate the kind of investigation her office has undertaken around the world.

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Beijing is having none of it. It has repeatedly lied about the scope and scale of abuses, rejected the premises of an independent investigation, and bullied or bought the support of other governments in thwarting growing international concern. Chinese diplomats rehash the tired argument that such scrutiny violates its national sovereignty – yet at the same time they backed a U.N.-initiated investigation focused on Israel, and another examining systemic racism in policing globally. The Chinese government has not accepted a visit from a U.N. high commissioner since 2005.

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Without access to the country – routinely denied by governments that the U.N. has linked to crimes against humanity, from Myanmar to Syria – the Office of the High Commissioner set about gathering information remotely and drafting a report detailing human rights violations against Uyghurs. Last September, Bachelet said her office was completing that assessment. In December, her spokesperson said the report would be issued within “a few weeks.”

Yet the report remains locked away inside U.N. headquarters. If the Chinese government had expectations that the report would not be released during the Beijing Games, it should not have any now that the Games have ended.

Beijing’s impunity should be challenged throughout the U.N. system, including by fulfilling the unprecedented 2020 call of 50 U.N. human rights experts to establish a standing mandate to continually monitor and report on human rights across China. It can also come through national prosecutors in other countries initiating investigations into alleged international crimes by Chinese authorities. It has come through sanctions on Chinese government officials, including former Xinjiang Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo, and entities including the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a military-economic body unique to the region and deeply enmeshed in repression.

It will also come as United States law now requires importers to show that their goods were not made with Uyghur forced labor, and as some companies quietly move supply chains out of the region because they cannot carry out proper audits. The European Union is about to propose legislation that would introduce due diligence requirements for companies to prevent and address human rights abuses, including forced labor, throughout their supply chains.

But the challenge to Beijing’s crimes against humanity should also come from High Commissioner Bachelet. Her failure to urgently pursue relief for millions of Uyghurs – and many others across China suffering under government repression – emboldens Beijing as it literally parades this mistreatment before a global audience and expects applause. With President Xi Jinping set to further cement his power at a series of high-level meetings in 2022 culminating in the Communist Party congress, the challenge for the U.N. of holding a powerful state accountable only deepens. Bachelet’s legacy – and that of the U.N. – is on the line.