GENEVA - China’s arbitrary detention of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minority groups in the western region of Xinjiang may amount to “crimes against humanity”, the UN human rights office has said in a new report.

Rights groups have accused China of systemically oppressing Uyghurs, carried out through widespread abuses, including mass incarceration, forced labour, torture and sexual assault.

The long-awaited report, published despite pressure from Beijing, seeks “urgent attention” from the world community to rights violations in the Communist government’s drive against alleged terrorism and extremism in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The 48-page document stated that serious human rights violations have been committed against Uyghurs in the name of the “government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism strategies”.

It pointed out that the violations stem from a domestic “anti-terrorism law system” that contains vague and open-ended concepts that are deeply problematic from the perspective of international human rights norms.

“The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups ... may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity,” the report found.

The report cites “patterns of torture” inside the alleged “vocational training centres” that Beijing claims were of its reputed plan to boost economic development in the region.

It also found credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment, including cases of sexual violence and “violations of reproductive rights through the coercive enforcement of family planning policies”.

Although the human rights office could not confirm estimates of how many people were detained in the camps, it said it was “reasonable to conclude that a pattern of large-scale arbitrary detention occurred” at least between 2017 and 2019.

The report called on Beijing to release all individuals arbitrarily detained and to clarify the whereabouts of individuals who have disappeared.

The findings, which corroborated past advocacy group reports, were released as the UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet served her last day in office.

Ms Bachelet was criticised for allegedly being too soft on China during her visit to Xinjiang in May.

“I said that I would publish it before my mandate ended and I have,” she told AFP. “The politicisation of these serious human rights issues by some states did not help.”

China, however, dismissed the report and slammed the rights group for ignoring human rights “achievements” made together by “people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang”.

“Based on the disinformation and lies fabricated by anti-China forces and out of presumption of guilt, the so-called ‘assessment’ distorts China’s laws and policies, and wantonly smears and slanders China, and interferes in China’s internal affairs,” read a letter from China’s diplomatic mission in Geneva.

The mission argued: “People of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are living a happy life in peace and contentment. It is the greatest human rights protection and the best human rights practice.”

In May, thousands of leaked photographs from Xinjiang provided fresh evidence of the involuntary mass incarceration of Uyghurs.

“Beijing’s repeated denial of the human rights crisis in Xinjiang rings ever-more hollow with this further recognition of the evidence of ongoing crimes against humanity and other human rights violation in the region,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, said in a statement.

The British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in London:

“The report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights provides new evidence of the appalling extent of China's efforts to silence and repress Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. It includes harrowing evidence, including first-hand accounts from victims, that shames China in the eyes of the international community, including actions that may amount to crimes against humanity. This includes credible evidence of arbitrary and discriminatory detention, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations of reproductive rights, and the destruction of religious sites. UN Member States must now be given the opportunity to consider the report fully.

“The UK has already led international efforts to hold China to account at the UN, imposed sanctions on senior Chinese government officials, and announced measures to help ensure no UK organisations are complicit in these violations through their supply chains.

“We will continue to act with international partners to bring about a change in China’s actions, and immediately end its appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang.”