The systematic persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China may amount to crimes against humanity and genocide.
Under the guise of combatting religious extremism and terrorism, in recent years the government of China and authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have increased their persecution of members of the ethnic Uyghur (or Uighur) community, as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslim minorities. China’s policies have resulted in large-scale arbitrary detention, severe restrictions on religious practice and repressive population control policies.
An estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities without formal charges or due process. During September 2020 the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) reported that more than 380 suspected detention facilities in XUAR – including so-called “re-education” camps and prisons – have been built or expanded since 2017. On 2 February the BBC reported on widespread rape, sexual abuse and torture of ethnic minorities in detention facilities. Meanwhile, an estimated 250,000 children under the age of 15 in XUAR have lost at least one parent to detention, with many children placed in state-run orphanages or boarding schools.
During 2020 ASPI reported that over 80,000 Uyghurs are also working under “conditions that strongly suggest forced labor,” with many transferred from detention camps to factories. Other reports have identified 135 detention facilities in Xinjiang that have on-site factories where detainees are reportedly forced to work. The factories are part of supply chains that allegedly provide goods for 82 global brands. According to evidence published by the Center for Global Policy, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities are also forced to work in Xinjiang’s cotton sector, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton. According to the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, 45 percent of the world’s polysilicon also comes from XUAR, supplying the global solar panel industry.
The Chinese government is also conducting a campaign to reduce birth rates among Uyghurs and other Muslim populations in XUAR. According to investigations, the coercive campaign includes forced abortions and sterilizations. Chinese government statistics reveal that the birthrate in XUAR for 2020 was only 8.14 births per 1,000 people, nearly half the figure from 2017.
Chinese authorities have also engaged in the systematic destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage, including by demolishing shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage sites. Approximately 16,000 mosques have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies.
These measures have been imposed 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. Leaked government documents reveal that the crackdown in Xinjiang was a result of pressure from senior officials, including President Xi Jinping. The Communist Party Secretary of XUAR, Chen Quanguo, subsequently intensified Uyghur persecution and expanded the detention camps. According to evidence collected by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, 1,046 imams and other religious figures from XUAR have been detained in camps or imprisoned since 2014.
Under customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the widespread or systematic persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities on religious, cultural, ethnic and gender grounds; the large-scale detention program; abuse of detainees; forced sterilization; and denial of information regarding the fate of persons in state custody in XUAR could constitute crimes against humanity.
The Chinese government also appears to be intentionally perpetrating at least four acts prohibited under Article II of the Genocide Convention: “imposing measures intended to prevent births” within a targeted group; “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;” “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;” and “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
The government of China is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect and is perpetrating possible crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has requested that China allow her office to carry out an independent assessment of reports of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions. On 26 June 2020 a group of 50 UN Special Procedures mandate holders called for the establishment of an impartial and independent UN mechanism to monitor the grave human rights situation in China. On 6 October Germany delivered a statement to the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee on behalf of 39 governments, calling on China to allow independent observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang” and refrain from arbitrarily detaining Uyghurs and other minorities. On 29 March a group of 16 independent UN experts called for unhindered access to the country to conduct investigations and urged companies to closely scrutinize their supply chains.
On 12 January Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) announced a set of measures to prohibit products that profit from Uyghur forced labor from entering their countries. The United States (US) government has also banned the importation of cotton and tomato products produced in Xinjiang. On 22 March Canada, the European Union (EU), UK and US imposed sanctions against officials in China over human rights abuses in XUAR. The EU also froze the assets of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau, a state-owned economic and paramilitary organization.
On 19 January the US became the first government to formally accuse China of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the ethnic Uyghur population and members of other Muslim minority groups. Since then, the parliaments of Canada, Lithuania, Netherlands and UK have also recognized the situation in Xinjiang as constituting genocide.
The government of China should immediately end the enforced separation of Uyghur children from their families, stop the practice of forcibly preventing births, cease the deliberate destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage, and repeal the “Regulation on De-extremification.” The authorities should release all persons being arbitrarily detained in “re-education camps” and related facilities.
The UN Human Rights Council should mandate a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in China or a Fact-Finding Mission to investigate and report on systematic violations of human rights.
Recognizing the important influence they may have, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Muslim-majority countries and neighboring states should urge China to respect the rights of minorities and cease their persecution of the Uyghur population. All UN member states should ban goods produced with forced labor in Xinjiang.