Five key points from the UN report on Xinjiang human rights abuses

China has committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province that could amount to crimes against humanity, the outgoing UN human rights commissioner has said in a long-awaited and damning report.

Crimes against humanity

The top line of the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) report is that the commissioner’s office found credible evidence of torture and other human rights abuses that were likely to be “crimes against humanity”.

The report included allegations of people being strapped by their hands and feet to a “tiger chair” and beaten, women raped, and others held in extended solitary confinement. Others appeared to have been waterboarded, as the report described individuals “being subjected to interrogation with water being poured in their faces”.

Rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch have also determined that crimes against humanity are being committed against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The UN didn’t call this a genocide, as the US government and others have.


The report was highly critical of the Chinese government’s anti-extremism doctrine, which underpins the crackdown. It said the laws and regulations were vague and ill-defined, open to individual interpretation, and blurred the line between indicators of concern and suspected criminality. Both categories also contained a copious number of benign acts classed as extremism despite having no connection to it, such as having a beard or a social media account.

Such indicators may simply be “the manifestation of personal choice in the practice of Islamic religious beliefs and/or legitimate expression of opinion” it said.

Accusations of extremism could result in people being referred to detention facilities at multiple stages along the investigative process by police, prosecutors or the courts.

Arbitrary detention

The report found there was an acute risk of arbitrary detention and that it was “reasonable to conclude that a pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention occurred in [vocational education and training centre] facilities, at least during 2017 to 2019”. It pushed back on Beijing’s claims that the facilities were schools or training centres where participants were free to join and leave. The report said such “placements” amounted to a form of deprivation of liberty.

“A deprivation of liberty occurs when a person is being held without his or her consent,” it said.

“Consistent accounts obtained by the OHCHR, however, indicate a lack of free and informed consent to being placed in the centres; that it is impossible for an individual detained in such a heavily guarded centre to leave of their own free will.”

Two-thirds of the former detainees interviewed by the OHCHR reported being subject to treatment that would amount to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.

Forced labour

The report also pushed back on China’s rejection of forced labour accusations, finding them to appear discriminatory in nature or effect, and to involve elements of coercion. It said the labour schemes were closely linked to the anti-extremism framework and arbitrary detention, which “raises concerns in terms of the extent to which such programmes can be fully voluntary”.

Forced medication and sexual abuse

Detainees were also forced to take medication or injections without explanation of what it was. It noted persistent claims of sexual abuse and violence in the facilities, and government denials which often used “personal or gendered attacks” against the women reporting allegations.

The report also found the Chinese government made a “clear link between frequency in child births and religious ‘extremism’”. It said there were “credible indications of violations of reproductive rights through the coercive enforcement of family planning policies”, including allegations of forced abortions, contraception and sterilisation. It noted Xinjiang’s rate of sterilisation was 243 procedures for every 100,000 inhabitants, compared with a national average of 32.