Populations at Risk
The treatment of ethnic 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 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" 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.
On 30 July 2019 two senior XUAR government officials claimed during a press conference that most people have been released from the "vocational training centers," with more than 90 percent reuniting with their families and finding "satisfactory jobs with good incomes." However, no evidence was provided to support this claim and continued lack of access to the XUAR region prevents independent observers from verifying it. Many within the Uighur diaspora have reported that their family members in XUAR are still missing or unreachable.
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 being sent to "re-education" camps. Authorities also 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. Chinese authorities have also engaged in the destruction of Uighur cultural heritage, including bulldozing historic mosques and some 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.
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 crimes against humanity under international law.
Systematic discrimination against the Uighurs, as well as surveillance systems that target the group, increases their vulnerability to violations and abuses of their fundamental human rights. The targeted 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 its 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 Human Rights Council (HRC) on 6 November 2018, several states issued specific recommendations for remedial action regarding the human rights situation in Xinjiang, including abolishing the program of arbitrary detention and providing access to relevant UN bodies.
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 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. In an apparent response, on 12 July Ambassadors from 37 governments sent a letter to the HRC President defending China's policies.
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. The government should also cease the deliberate destruction of the unique cultural heritage of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, including historic mosques.
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 September 2019