Populations at Risk
The treatment of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region may amount to crimes against humanity.
Under the auspices of combatting religious extremism and terrorism, over the past several years the government of China and authorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have increased repression of members of the Uighur minority and other Turkic Muslims. China's approach to combatting 'religious extremism,' which Chinese authorities assert is the driving force behind numerous violent attacks by Uighurs in recent years, 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 reportedly being detained in 're-education' or 'de-extremification' facilities for minor or seemingly arbitrary infractions, without formal charges, due process rights, or access to legal representation. Some former detainees have reported that while in state custody they were subjected to abuse and torture, ill-treatment and forced political indoctrination. While constructing the camps Chinese authorities have also engaged in the destruction of Uighur cultural heritage, including through bulldozing mosques and other Uighur religious sites.
Along with the mass detention program, over the past year China has expanded its police presence and pervasive surveillance system in Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have implemented systems that monitor the daily lives of 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 or violence, which is the basis for people being sent to 're-education' programs. 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 also occurred against the backdrop of increasing restrictions on religious practice in the region. In March 2017 XUAR authorities passed the Regulation on De-extremification, which prohibits a range of "extreme" behaviors, such as expanding the concept of halal; "abnormal" beards; wearing face covering veils in public places; and refusing to engage in state-sponsored cultural or education programs. At a national level, in recent years China has introduced new and stricter social and religious regulations under amendments to the Criminal Law, and the adoption of the National Security Law of 2015, the Counter-Terrorism Law of 2016, the Cybersecurity Law of 2017, and the Revised Regulations on Religious Affairs of 2018.
The large-scale detention program, systematic abuse suffered by 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 utilizing surveillance systems to single out members of the group increases their vulnerability to violations and abuses of their human rights. The destruction of Uighur cultural heritage and government policies aimed at discouraging Muslim religious practices may be part of a systematic attempt to dilute Uighur cultural influence and demographic presence 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.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has repeatedly requested access for her office to investigate allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang, but the government has thus far denied allegations and refused to grant an invitation.
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 cooperating with and providing access to relevant UN bodies. On 25 February 2019 the governments of Turkey and the United Kingdom raised concern regarding the persecution of the Uighurs in their opening remarks at the UN HRC's 40th Session.
The European Parliament passed a resolution in October 2018 that characterised the situation as "the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic minority population in the world today" and urged European Union (EU) officials "to send a strong message to the highest level of the Chinese Government to end the grotesque human rights violations." On 17 January 2019 the United States Senate also revived a bill that calls for financial and travel sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against Chinese officials overseeing the detention program.
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 also grant entry to OHCHR and ensure an impartial and credible investigation of allegations of abuse, torture and ill-treatment of persons held in detention in Xinjiang. The XUAR authorities should release all individuals being arbitrarily detained in "re-education camps" and other detention facilities.
OHCHR and special procedures mandate holders should continue to call for the immediate release of persons involuntarily held in detention without due process, and closely monitor the situation in Xinjiang.
Recognising the important influence they may have in urging China to reconsider its policies in Xinjiang, Muslim-majority countries, as well as neighbouring states, should urge China to respect the rights of all Turkic Muslims.
Last Updated: 15 May 2019