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, in recent years the government of China and authorities in the northern 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 majority-Muslim ethnic groups. China’s policies include large-scale arbitrary detention, severe restrictions on religious practice and repressive population control policies.
An estimated 1 million Uyghurs and members of other majority-Muslim ethnic groups have been detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities without formal charges or due process. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), more than 380 suspected detention facilities in XUAR have been built or expanded since 2017. The BBC and other outlets have reported on widespread rape, sexual abuse and torture of ethnic minorities in detention facilities. During October an exiled Chinese police officer-turned-whistleblower shared rare details about the “systematic campaign of torture” that police officers and guards inflict on detainees, including men, women and children as young as 14. Meanwhile, an estimated 250,000 children under the age of 15 in XUAR have lost at least one parent to detention, with hundreds of thousands of children 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. 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 the Center for Global Policy, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities are also forced to work in Xinjiang’s cotton sector, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton. The Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice reported that over 100 international brands may be tied to Uyghur forced-labor-produced 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. Nearly the entire industry is implicated in Uyghur forced labor.
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. Chinese government statistics reveal that the birthrate in XUAR for 2020 was only 8.14 per 1,000 people, nearly half the figure from 2017.
Chinese authorities have engaged in the systematic destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage, including by demolishing shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage sites. As a result, 16,000 mosques have been destroyed or damaged in XUAR since around 2017.
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. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, 1,046 imams and other religious figures from XUAR have been detained in camps or imprisoned since 2014.
China has perpetrated a repressive campaign against Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in the region for several decades, but abuses have significantly escalated since 2017. Leaked government documents reveal that the crackdown in XUAR 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.
Under customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the widespread or systematic persecution of Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups on religious, cultural, ethnic and gender grounds; 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.”
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 majority-Muslim ethnic groups.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has requested unfettered access to XUAR for nearly three years, but the Chinese government has not granted a visit.
On 21 October the government of France delivered a statement on behalf of 43 countries on the human rights situation in Xinjiang at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee. The statement urged China to end the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims and allow independent observers immediate access to Xinjiang. This was the third consecutive year that such a statement was delivered, but the first with signatories from all five UN regional groups.
On 19 January 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, Lithuania, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (UK) have also recognized the situation in Xinjiang as constituting genocide and/or crimes against humanity. Citing the human rights crisis, a number of parliaments have also called for a boycott of the 2022 Olympic games in Beijing.
On 12 January Canada and the UK announced measures to prohibit products that profit from Uyghur forced labor from entering their countries. The US government has also banned the importation of products from Xinjiang for utilizing forced labor, including cotton and tomato products, as well as XUAR- based producers of polysilicon. On 13 July the US issued a Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory, warning businesses and individuals to exit supply chains, ventures and/or investments connected to Xinjiang. The governments of Canada, UK and US, as well as the European Union, have also imposed sanctions against officials in China over human rights abuses in XUAR.
On 8 July the UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee published a report on atrocities in Xinjiang that cited evidence from experts, including the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and provided wide-ranging recommendations for the UK government to help end abuses in Xinjiang.
In the absence of formal legal measures, the London-based Uyghur Tribunal, an independent people’s tribunal, has been investigating allegations of mass atrocities in XUAR. Three rounds of hearings were held in June, September and November 2021. The Tribunal will issue its ruling on 9 December.
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.” Chinese authorities should grant High Commissioner Bachelet immediate and unfettered access to Xinjiang.
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 systematic human rights violations in XUAR.
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 Uyghurs. All UN member states should ban goods produced with forced labor of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in China.