Under the auspices of combatting religious extremism and terrorism, over recent years the government of China and authorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have increased repression of members of the ethnic Uighur community and other Turkic Muslims. China's approach to combatting "religious extremism," which Chinese authorities assert is the driving force behind violent attacks by some Uighurs over the last decade, has resulted in large-scale arbitrary detention, severe restrictions on religious practice, and pervasive surveillance and control of the Muslim population of Xinjiang.
Approximately one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities are currently being detained in "re-education" or "de-extremification" facilities without formal charges, due process, or access to legal representation. Some former detainees have reported that while in state custody they were subjected to abuse, ill-treatment and forced political indoctrination. Chinese authorities have also engaged in the destruction of Uighur cultural heritage, including bulldozing historic mosques and other Uighur religious sites. The government has also reportedly separated Muslim children from their families, placing them in boarding schools and denying access to information on their location.
Along with the mass detention program, over the past year China has expanded its pervasive policing and surveillance system in Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have implemented systems that monitor the daily lives of all Uighurs, including what they read, the content of their communications, and the people with whom they interact. Data is reportedly used to profile persons at risk of extremist thought, which is the basis for people being sent to "re-education" camps. Authorities also reportedly collect DNA during medical check-ups, install a GPS tracking system on all vehicles, and monitor and control all mobile and online communications.
The dramatic expansion of detention and surveillance programs has occurred in conjunction with increased restrictions on religious practice. In March 2017 XUAR authorities passed the Regulation on De-extremification, which prohibits a range of "extreme" behaviors, such as "abnormal" beards; wearing face coverings or veils in public; and refusing to participate in state-sponsored cultural or education programs.
The large-scale detention program, systematic abuse of detainees, and lack of information regarding the fate of persons in state custody in Xinjiang could constitute at least three of the eleven acts of crimes against humanity defined under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Systematic discrimination against the Uighurs, as well as surveillance systems that single out members of the group, increases their vulnerability to violations and abuses of their human rights. The destruction of historic mosques and other places of cultural significance may be part of a systematic attempt to eradicate Uighur cultural heritage in China.
The government of China is failing to uphold their responsibility to protect and may be perpetrating crimes against humanity against the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in XUAR.
During China's third Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) on 6 November 2018, several states issued specific recommendations for remedial action, including abolishing the program of arbitrary detention and providing access to relevant UN bodies.
On 13-15 June the Under-Secretary-General of the UN Counter-Terrorism Office, Vladimir Voronkov, visited China, including the XUAR, at the invitation of the government. The visit was criticized by several governments for legitimizing China's narrative that the situation in XUAR is a "counter-terrorism" issue.
On 13 June China's Ambassador to the UN in Geneva invited the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to visit XUAR, but negotiations regarding access to the detention camps in XUAR are ongoing.
On 8 July 22 governments sent a letter to the President of the HRC calling upon China to halt its mass detention of ethnic Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.
The government of China should immediately halt widespread violations and abuses of human rights in XUAR and repeal the Regulation on De-extremification. The government should grant unfettered access to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and ensure an impartial and credible investigation into allegations of abuse, torture and ill-treatment of persons held in detention in Xinjiang. The XUAR authorities should release all Uighur and other Turkic Muslim individuals being arbitrarily detained in "re-education camps" and other detention facilities. The authorities should immediately end the enforced separation of Uighur children from their families.
OHCHR and special procedures mandate holders should continue to call for the immediate release of all persons involuntarily held in detention without due process, and closely monitor the situation in Xinjiang.
Recognizing the important influence they may have in urging China to reconsider its policies in Xinjiang, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Muslim-majority countries, and neighboring states, should all urge China to respect the rights of all Turkic Muslims.
Last Updated: 15 July 2019