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UN human rights chief vows to follow up with China on abuse concerns


The United Nations headquarters building is pictured with a UN logo in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 1, 2022. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

U.N. human rights chief Volker Turk said on Friday he wanted to engage with Beijing over the findings of a report issued by his predecessor that said China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in its Xinjiang region may constitute crimes against humanity.

Grappling with the human rights record of China, a permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council, is one of the thorniest among dozens of human rights challenges facing the new high commissioner since he started in October.

Beijing pressured Turk’s predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, not to publish the report, Reuters revealed, and she only did so in the final minutes of her term.

The report “is a very important one and has highlighted very serious human rights concerns,” Turk told a Geneva news briefing in his first public comments on the matter since taking office.

“I will personally continue engaging with the (Chinese) authorities. I’m very determined to do so,” he said. “Hope springs eternal for changes.”

China, which denies the Xinjiang allegations, has previously indicated that it would close the door to cooperation with the U.N. human rights office after the report’s release.

A Western-led effort to launch a debate on the Xinjiang report at the Human Rights Council failed in October amid intensive lobbying against it from China.

The High Commissioner plays a critical role in speaking out against backsliding on freedoms at a time when autocracies are gaining influence worldwide at the expense of democracies.

Turk is a former under-secretary general for policy under UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Some early critics of his appointment had assumed that Turk would adopt the quiet tactics of his former boss.

However, the Austrian has since shown a willingness to publicly accuse Iran of “unnecessary and disproportionate use of force” against protesters, and has taken the Taliban to task for what he described on Friday as the “systematic exclusion” of women and girls in Afghanistan.

Turk has also undertaken trips to Sudan and Ukraine, where he released a report on killings of hundreds of civilians by Russian forces in the early days of Moscow’s invasion. Moscow has repeatedly denied targeting civilians in Ukraine.

At the same briefing, he drew attention to a series of “forgotten crises” in Haiti, Somalia, Yemen and Mozambique, where he said there was a disregard for human rights. These “not only have severe consequences for the people directly affected, but are likely to have ripple effects across borders, and risk further de-stabilizing their regions,” he said.

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