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A UN investigation into China’s treatment of Muslim minorities in its vast Xinjiang region has reported torture, sexual abuse and possible crimes against humanity, but stopped short of describing it as genocide. 


The report was immediately met by a lengthy rebuttal from China‘s mission to Geneva.

Here are five main allegations from the UN and China’s responses:

Mass arbitrary detention

The UN report describes a “pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention” in Xinjiang, in which individuals suspected of terrorism are held in high-security facilities without due process and for indefinite lengths of time.

Everything from having too many children, wearing a veil or beard, or not using one’s passport are cited as behaviours that can lead authorities to identify individuals as being at risk of “extremism” and mark them for possible detention.

More recently there have been signs of a shift toward formal jail terms “as the principal means for large-scale imprisonment and deprivation of liberty”, according to the report.

Many have been detained without their family members being informed, it also notes.

China has dismissed allegations of mass arbitrary detention as “lies”. It insists it has “clearly specified” definitions of terrorism and extremism that have “ruled out arbitrary enforcement due to vague, over-stretching and general legal provisions”.


The report says it found “credible” allegations of torture and sexual assault – including rape – at detention centres in Xinjiang.

Former detainees interviewed by the UN describe being beaten while immobilised in “tiger chairs” — used by Chinese police to restrain interrogation subjects — and being forced to receive unexplained medical treatments, as well as instances of rape and “invasive gynaecological examinations”.

“The Government’s blanket denials of all allegations, as well as its gendered and humiliating attacks on those who have come forward to share their experiences… have added to the indignity and suffering of survivors,” the UN report says.

China insists the centres “fully guarantee that trainees’ personal dignity is inviolable, and prohibit any insult or abuse of them in any manner”.

Beijing has publicly condemned women who made claims of sexual assault in the camps, using their alleged sexual health and relationship statuses in an attempt to discredit them.

Forced sterilisations and abortions 

The UN says it spoke to women who recounted being “forced to have abortions or forced to have IUDs inserted” – claims it said were believed to be credible. 

Noting a sharp decline in Xinjiang’s birth rates from 2017, as well as a Beijing white paper linking frequent births and religious extremism, the UN’s human rights office says “there are credible indications of violations of reproductive rights through the coercive enforcement of family planning policies”.

China dismisses claims of forced sterilisations as “disinformation”, saying people in Xinjiang are voluntarily opting to marry later and have fewer children due to improved education and living conditions.

Suppression of religious freedom

The UN report says China has “exceptionally broad interpretations of ‘extremism'” that criminalise activities “connected to the enjoyment of cultural and religious life”.

Activities including wearing hijabs and giving children Muslim names are flagged as signs of “religious extremism”, which “can lead to serious consequences for persons so identified”, according to the report.

The OHCHR also notes “deeply concerning” reports about the destruction of mosques and cemeteries in Xinjiang.

China insists all “normal religious activities” in Xinjiang are protected by the law, pointing to government-funded renovations of some mosques as well as an expansion of official training institutes for Islamic clerics as evidence.

Forced labour

The report says it found indications that employment programmes in Xinjiang could “involve elements of coercion” — echoing long-standing claims by the United States and others that forced labour was taking place in the region. 

The report notes government statements that refer to transferring people from vocational centres to factories, raising questions about “the extent to which such programmes can be considered fully voluntary”.

China says “trainees” at vocational centres “could freely choose their jobs” and that graduates “are earning wages and living a prosperous life”.