In July, the ETI called for the OHCHR to be allowed to make an assessment of the situation in Xinjiang as it became increasingly difficult to guarantee that state-imposed forced labour is absent from supply chains based there.

The report which has now been published confirms that “allegations of patterns of torture, or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention, are credible, as are allegations of individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.”

The OHCHR said the extent of arbitrary detentions against Uyghur and others, in the context of “restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights, enjoyed individually and collectively, may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

The UN rights office said that Wednesday’s report was “based on a rigorous review of documentary material currently available to the office, with its credibility assessed in accordance with standard human rights methodology.

“Particular attention was given to the Government’s own laws, policies, data and statements. The office also requested information and engaged in dialogue and technical exchanges with China throughout the process.”

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The report says the violations have taken place in the context of the Chinese Government’s assertion that it is targeting terrorists among the Uyghur minority with a counter-extremism strategy that involves the use of so-called Vocational Educational and Training Centres (VETCs), or re-education camps.

OHCHR said the Government policy in recent years in Xinjiang has “led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights.”

Even if the VETC system has as China says “been reduced in scope or wound up”, said OHCHR, “the laws and policies that underpin it remain in place”, leading to an increased use of imprisonment.

The systems of arbitrary detention and related patterns of abuse since 2017, said OHCHR, “come against the backdrop of broader discrimination” against Uyghur and other minorities.

“This has included far-reaching, arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms, in violation of international laws and standards”, including restrictions on religious freedom and the rights to privacy and movement.

OHCHR said the Chinese Government “holds the primary duty to ensure that all laws and policies are brought into compliance with international human rights law and to promptly investigate any allegations of human rights violations, to ensure accountability for perpetrators, and to provide redress to victims.”

Report recommendations

Among the recommendations that the UN rights office makes in the report, is for the Government to take “prompt steps” to release all individuals arbitrarily imprisoned in Xinjiang, whether in camps or any other detention centre.

China should let families know the whereabouts of any individuals who have been detained, providing exact locations, and help to establish “safe channels of communication” and allow families to reunite, said the report.

The report calls on China to undertake a full legal review of its national security and counter-terrorism policies in Xinjiang, “to ensure their full compliance with binding international human rights law” and repeal any laws that fall short of international standards.

It also calls for a prompt Government investigation into allegations of human rights violations in camps and other detention facilities, “including allegations of torture, sexual violence, ill-treatment, forced medical treatment, as well as forced labour and reports of deaths in custody.”

In a long and detailed response published along with the hard-hitting report, the Chinese Government said in conclusion, that authorities in the Xinjiang region operate on the principle that everyone is equal before the law, “and the accusation that its policy is ‘based on discrimination’ is groundless.”

China said that its counter-terrorism and “de-radicalization efforts” in the region, had been conducted according to “the rule of law” and by no means add up to “suppression of ethnic minorities.”

On the issue of the camps, Beijing responded that the VETCs are “learning facilities established in accordance with law intended for de-radicalization” and not “concentration camps”.

China lodged documents with the International Labour Organization (ILO) confirming its ratification on forced labour.

The move builds on an earlier commitment and with these ratifications, China, which is a founding member state of the ILO, reinforces its commitment to respect, promote and realise the ILO Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Convention No. 29 prohibits the use of forced labour in all its forms and requires state parties to make forced labour practices punishable as a penal offence. This instrument was supplemented by Convention No. 105, which calls for the immediate abolition of compulsory labour as a means of political coercion or education or punishment for the expression of political views, mobilising and using labour forces for purposes of economic development, labour discipline, punishment for participation in strikes; and racial, social, national or religious discrimination.

ETI Response

China’s Government must take steps to end and prevent such exploitation and be transparent about conditions so improvements can be observed in line with international standards. For responsible businesses, a duty remains to redouble efforts in detecting forced labour within their operations and extended supply chains; including the practice of labour provision of Uyghurs and other minorities into other regions.

“There is a call to action by the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region which we encourage businesses to engage with, given their expertise in this area. At a time when international norms are being challenged in various different ways and geographies, it is important that businesses understand that it is in their interest to take note of such abuses and stand up for agreed international norms, playing their full role in ensuring that human rights are respected.”