Uyghur diaspora groups and activists around the world urged the international community to take action to help end China's mistreatment of Uyghurs following the release of a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Wednesday.
In a statement on its website, Munich-based World Uyghur Congress and more than 60 Uyghur organizations around the world called on the U.N. to establish a commission of inquiry to independently examine the human rights situation in Xinjiang. They also urged the U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention to immediately conduct an assessment of the risks of atrocities, including genocide and crimes against humanity.
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, told VOA that the report, titled, “OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People's Republic of China,” is "extremely" important.
"It paves the way for meaningful and tangible action by member states, U.N. bodies and the business community," Isa told VOA. "Accountability starts now."
On Wednesday, the last day of her four-year tenure, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet published her office's long-awaited assessment on human rights circumstances in China's northwest region of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), saying China has committed "serious human rights violations" and "may have committed crimes against humanity" against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim communities under the pretext of counterterrorism and counter-"extremism" strategies.
"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," the report said. "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."
According to the 48-page report, in addition to internment camps, or what China called "vocational education training centers" that affected "a significant proportion" of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim communities, there has been a shift toward formal large-scale imprisonment in Xinjiang.
"In summary, the trend of increased number and length of imprisonments through the criminal justice system in XUAR strongly suggests there has been a shift towards formal incarcerations as the principal means for large-scale imprisonment and deprivation of liberty," the report said.
The assessment described other rights violations toward Uyghurs and other Turkic groups, including religious, cultural and linguistic identity and expression; rights to privacy and freedom of movement; reproductive rights; forced labor; family separation; and reprisals for speaking out.
The report made recommendations to China such as taking "prompt steps to release all individuals arbitrarily deprived of their liberty" in Xinjiang.
Omer Kanat, executive director of Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, said on his group's website that the U.N. report is "a game-changer for the international response" to the Uyghur crisis.
"Despite the Chinese government's strenuous denials, the U.N. has now officially recognized that horrific crimes are occurring," Kanat said.
Some Uyghur activists, however, said the report did not go far enough.
Rushan Abbas, executive director at Campaign for Uyghurs, said that although the facts of the report reveal arbitrary detention, sexual torture, family separation, discrimination and pervasive state surveillance, it has an "outrageous" shortcoming.
"The report fails to truthfully call China's atrocities what they are: genocide and crimes against humanity. This choice is inexcusable and unpardonable," Abbas told VOA via email. "While this report lays bare many truths, far more is needed than words. We must take tangible actions to stop the CCP's whitewashing, boldfaced lies, threats, extradition and acts of genocide. If we do not act, we will have failed the lessons of the Holocaust, 'never again.'"
According to Salih Hudayar, founder of Washington-based East Turkistan National Awakening Movement and prime minister of East Turkistan Government in Exile, the fact that the U.N. report only stated that China's actions may constitute international crimes, in particular, crimes against humanity instead of genocide, shows it was done to appease China.
"We believe this is the result of China pressuring the U.N. to downplay the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Turkic peoples," Hudayar told VOA in an email. "Appallingly the U.N. report doesn't clearly reject the Chinese government's narrative around 'counterterrorism' and vaguely urges the Chinese government to review their 'counterterrorism policy' and thus helping China legitimize its ongoing genocide in East Turkistan."
Most Uyghurs prefer the name East Turkistan rather than the Chinese name of Xinjiang.
China dismissed the U.N. assessment as "orchestrated and produced by the U.S. and some Western forces" and "completely illegal, null and void."
On Thursday, Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told reporters in Beijing that "people from ethnic minorities, religious figures, workers, and those who graduated from the vocational and education training centers, among others, have voluntarily written to" Bachelet about their own experience to present the real Xinjiang.
"It is a patchwork of disinformation that serves as a political tool for the U.S. and some Western forces to strategically use Xinjiang to contain China," Wang said. "The OHCHR fabricated the assessment based on the political scheme of some anti-China forces outside China."
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the United States welcomes this important report.
"This report deepens and reaffirms our grave concern regarding the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity that PRC government authorities are perpetrating against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang," Blinken said.
In a statement on Thursday, U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio condemned the human rights office for its weak and delayed report.
"The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights finally found time to look into one of the most pressing human rights issues of the modern era. Unfortunately, it did exactly what we expected: downplay the severity of the Chinese Communist Party's crimes," Rubio said.
"Everyone in the world, except apparently people at the United Nations, knows the Chinese Communist Party is committing genocide against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups."