GENEVA, Switzerland -- United Nations (UN) rights chief Volker Türk on Tuesday (March 7) demanded action from Beijing to address "grave concerns" over the human rights situation in Xinjiang province, China.
Türk has been under pressure from Western nations and rights organisations to take a firm stand on Xinjiang following a bombshell report by his predecessor that cited possible crimes against humanity in the far-western region.
The report detailed a string of violations of the rights of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking minorities in Xinjiang, urging the world to pay "urgent attention" to the human rights situation in the far-western region.
It highlighted "credible" allegations of widespread torture, arbitrary detention and violations of religious and reproductive rights.
It also brought UN endorsement to long-running allegations by campaigners and others, who accuse Beijing of detaining more than one million Uighurs and other Muslims in "re-education camps" and forcibly sterilising women.
Accusations include mass incarceration, forced labour, compulsory sterilisation, systematic rape and the destruction of Uighur cultural and Islamic sites.
Uighur rights campaigners, the United States and other Western countries have said China is committing "genocide" of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.
Last October, 50 countries signed a statement calling for ''urgent attention'' from the UN regarding China's "ongoing human rights violations of Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang".
Beijing vehemently rejects the charges and insists it is running vocational training centres in the region to counter extremism.
The UN is concerned about the protection of minorities such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang and Tibetans, Türk said in his speech to the first UN Human Rights Council session of the year.
"Regarding China, we have opened up channels of communication with a range of actors to follow up on a variety of human rights issues," he said.
"In the Xinjiang region, my office has documented grave concerns -- notably large-scale arbitrary detentions and ongoing family separations -- and has made important recommendations that require concrete follow-up."
Türk also voiced unease over restrictions of civic discourse in China and the far-reaching national security law in Hong Kong imposed in 2020 to stamp out dissent following the city's huge and often violent pro-democracy demonstrations.
"We also have concerns about the severe restriction of civic space more generally, including the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders and lawyers, and the impact of the National Security Law in Hong Kong."
It was Türk's first speech to the council in Geneva since taking office as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in October.
'Stop denying the facts'
Responding to the speech, Chinese ambassador Chen Xu said that with Beijing's efforts to combat terrorism and radicalisation, human rights in Xinjiang were "well protected".
US ambassador Michele Taylor urged the council Tuesday to "take action to address the egregious and ongoing violation of human rights in Xinjiang".
Last month she said Washington was intent on continuing "to shine a spotlight on documented abuses of Uighurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang".
"I'm especially grateful to High Commissioner Türk, who has made a commitment to me and others that he will stand behind his office's report."
British ambassador Simon Manley meanwhile called on Beijing "to stop denying the facts and engage seriously and constructively" with the recommendations from Türk's office.
Hilary Power, Geneva office director of Human Rights Watch, urged the council to investigate "sweeping rights abuses in China, including in Xinjiang," pointing out that this call had "been made by hundreds of other NGOs from all regions and numerous UN experts".
Amnesty International chief Agnes Callamard called on Türk to publicly put his weight behind the Xinjiang report.
Türk "will be assessed on the basis of his work and commitment to the Xinjiang people and to his courage in tackling China", she told reporters ahead of his speech.