China

1 March 2022
Risk Level: Current Crisis
More than 1 million Uyghurs and other majority- Muslim ethnic groups are currently being detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities

The systematic persecution of Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in China may amount to crimes against humanity and genocide.

BACKGROUND:

Under the guise of combatting religious extremism and terrorism, in recent years the government of China and authorities in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have increased their persecution of members of the ethnic Uyghur community, as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups. China’s abuses include severe restrictions on religious practice, large-scale arbitrary detention and repressive population control policies.

More than 1 million people, mainly Uyghurs, have been arbitrarily detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities since around 2017. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, more than 380 suspected detention facilities in XUAR have been built or expanded since 2017. There are reports of 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 over 880,000 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. At least 135 detention facilities in Xinjiang reportedly have on-site factories where detainees are 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 forced to work in Xinjiang’s cotton sector, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton. In November 2021 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 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 2020 birthrate in XUAR was only 8.14 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. The government has destroyed or damaged 16,000 mosques in XUAR since 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.

ANALYSIS:

China has perpetrated a repressive campaign against Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in XUAR 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 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 or systematic persecution of Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups on religious, cultural, ethnic and gender grounds; enforced disappearances; forcible transfers; 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.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has requested unfettered access to XUAR for over three years.

On 21 October 2021 the government of France delivered a statement on behalf of 43 countries on the 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 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, France, Lithuania, Netherlands and 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 governments diplomatically boycotted the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.

On 12 January 2021 Canada and the UK announced measures to prohibit products that profit from Uyghur forced labor from entering their countries. The governments of Canada, UK, US and the European Union, have imposed sanctions against officials in China over human rights abuses in XUAR. On 23 December US President Joe Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which prevents the import of goods made “in whole or in part” 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, conducted an investigation into allegations of mass atrocities in XUAR. The Tribunal concluded in its ruling on 9 December that the Chinese government is perpetrating genocide and crimes against humanity.

NECESSARY ACTION:

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, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights must publicly release its report on human rights violations in XUAR.

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.

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