The systematic persecution of Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in China may amount to crimes against humanity and genocide.
Under the guise of combatting religious extremism and terrorism, since around 2017 the Chinese government has increased its persecution of members of the ethnic Uyghur community, as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Over 1 million people, mainly Uyghurs, have been arbitrarily detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities. There are reports of widespread rape, sexual abuse and torture of ethnic minorities in these facilities. On 31 August 2022 former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released a long-awaited report on XUAR, which determined that the arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and others may constitute crimes against humanity. The report found that the conditions remain in place for serious violations to continue. An estimated 880,000 children in XUAR – whose parents are allegedly detained or in exile – have been placed in state-run orphanages or boarding schools.
Approximately 100,000 Uyghurs are also working under conditions that strongly suggest forced labor, with many transferred from detention camps to factories. Reports have identified at least 135 detention facilities in XUAR that have on-site factories where detainees are reportedly forced to work. The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery determined that forced labor among Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities has been occurring in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing in XUAR and Tibet. International research and advocacy groups have documented evidence of Uyghur-linked forced labor of cotton, polysilicon for solar panels and other products sold globally.
These measures have been imposed in conjunction with increased restrictions on religious practice, including the March 2017 “Regulation on De-extremification,” which prohibits a range of “extreme” behaviors, such as “abnormal” beards in XUAR. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, 1,046 imams and other religious figures have been detained in camps or imprisoned since 2014. Chinese authorities have also engaged in the systematic destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage, demolishing or damaging thousands of shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage sites. The Chinese government is also conducting a coercive campaign to reduce birth rates among Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim populations in XUAR. The campaign reportedly includes forced abortions and sterilizations, leading to a nearly 50 percent birthrate decrease from 2017 to 2020.
According to the Helena Kennedy Centre, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a state-run paramilitary group, is responsible for myriad abuses targeting Uyghurs, including systematic forced migration, forced labor, mass internment, land expropriation, repressive policing and religious persecution.
Uyghurs also face intense surveillance by the government. Police checkpoints, the use of facial recognition cameras and the collection of biometric data has turned XUAR into a de facto police state. In April 2022 the Woodrow Wilson Center reported that since 1997 the Chinese government has also targeted over 5,500 Uyghurs outside China, including over 1,500 Uyghurs who have been detained and forcibly returned to China.
China has perpetrated a repressive campaign against Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups for several decades, but abuses have significantly escalated since 2017. Leaked government documents reveal that the crackdown was a result of pressure from senior officials, including President Xi Jinping. The former Communist Party Secretary of XUAR, Chen Quanguo, subsequently intensified Uyghur persecution and expanded the detention camps.
Under customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the widespread and systematic persecution of Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups on religious, cultural, ethnic and gender grounds; enforced disappearances; forcible transfers; the large-scale detention program; torture of detainees; forced sterilization and sexual violence; and denial of information regarding the fate of persons in state custody 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.” Widespread cultural destruction is further evidence of genocidal intent.
The government of China is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect and is likely perpetrating atrocities against Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups.
In January 2021 the United States (US) formally accused China of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghur population and members of other majority-Muslim ethnic groups. Since then, the parliaments of Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, the European Union (EU), France, Lithuania, Netherlands and United Kingdom (UK) have also recognized the situation in Xinjiang as constituting genocide and/or crimes against humanity.
The governments of Canada, UK and US and the EU have sanctioned Chinese government officials and taken steps to ban goods tied to Uyghur forced labor. The US government’s Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act took effect in June 2022, preventing the import of goods made “in whole or in part” in XUAR from entering the country.
In the absence of formal legal measures, the London-based Uyghur Tribunal, an independent people’s tribunal, investigated allegations of mass atrocities in XUAR. In December 2021 the Tribunal concluded that the Chinese government is perpetrating genocide and crimes against humanity.
After requesting unfettered access to XUAR for over three years, High Commissioner Bachelet traveled to China on a non-investigative visit in May 2022.
In a June 2022 statement, 42 UN experts expressed serious concern about China’s human rights record, particularly in XUAR. On 6 October a coalition of states introduced a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) that called for a debate on the High Commissioner’s report on XUAR. The resolution was rejected by a vote of 17 in favor, 19 against and 11 abstentions. On 31 October at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, Canada delivered a statement on behalf of 50 countries expressing concern about human rights in XUAR.
On 24 November the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a series of recommendations on XUAR and referred the situation to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect.
The government of China should release all persons being arbitrarily detained in “re-education camps” and related facilities, stop the practice of forcibly preventing births and separating Uyghur children from their families, cease the deliberate destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage, and repeal the “Regulation on De-extremification.”
The HRC should mandate a Special Rapporteur or a fact-finding mission on the situation of human rights in China to investigate systematic human rights violations in XUAR. In the absence of such a mechanism, other relevant UN experts, particularly the High Commissioner for Human Rights, should prioritize monitoring the region. UNESCO should also investigate cultural destruction in XUAR.
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 Uyghurs. All UN member states should ban goods produced with or tied to forced labor in China.