The Chinese government is committing possible crimes against humanity and genocide by systematically persecuting Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups.
Under the guise of combating religious extremism and terrorism, in recent years Chinese authorities in the northwestern so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have increased persecution of the ethnic Uyghur community, as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups. 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 when XUAR authorities passed the “Regulation on De-extremification,” which prohibits a range of “extreme” behaviors, such as “abnormal” beards.
Over 1 million people, mainly Uyghurs, have been arbitrarily detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities since 2017. More than 380 suspected detention facilities in XUAR have been built or expanded since 2017, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. There are reports of widespread rape, sexual abuse and torture of ethnic minorities in these facilities. 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. 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.
Approximately 100,000 Uyghurs are also working under conditions that strongly suggest forced labor. Reports have identified at least 135 detention facilities in XUAR that have on-site factories where detainees are allegedly forced to work. An August 2022 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery determined that forced labor among Uyghur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities has been occurring in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing. The Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice has reported that over 100 international brands may be tied to Uyghur forced labor-produced cotton while the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region has found that 45 percent of the world’s polysilicon comes from XUAR, implicating nearly the entire global solar panel industry.
The governments of Canada, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) and the European Union (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, which took effect in June 2022, prevents the import of goods made “in whole or in part” in XUAR from entering the country.
Leaked Chinese government documents reveal that the crackdown against Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups 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. The “Xinjiang Police Files” further implicate top officials and demonstrate how so-called counterterrorism is used to justify the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs.
These measures have been imposed in conjunction with increased restrictions on religious practice. 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. Uyghurs in XUAR and around the world also face surveillance, including with the use of spies, which reinforces fear and social control by the Chinese government. Chinese authorities have engaged in the systematic destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage, demolishing or damaging thousands of mosques, shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage sites, as well as several tangible and intangible Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultural items listed by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
In January 2021 the 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 EU, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands and the UK have also recognized the situation in XUAR as constituting genocide and/or crimes against humanity.
Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released a report on the human rights crisis in XUAR in August 2022. The report determined that the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups may constitute crimes against humanity, and that conditions remain in place for serious human rights violations to continue. The report also questioned the Chinese government’s claims that its policies are for counterterrorism purposes.
During the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) 51st session in September 2022, Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and a group of Nordic countries led a resolution aimed at holding a debate on the High Commissioner’s report. Although the resolution was rejected by narrow vote, it marked the first time the HRC considered formal action on China. In November 2022 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 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 likely 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 Chinese government’s systematic destruction of cultural heritage aims to erase the history and identity of Uyghurs and other groups, providing further evidence of genocide. The imposition of strict control over populations in XUAR, including with mass surveillance, facilitates ongoing persecution.
Recent efforts by UN member states to mobilize the HRC to hold a formal discussion on XUAR constitutes an important step to increase scrutiny of ongoing atrocity crimes perpetrated by Chinese authorities.
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.”
At the HRC’s upcoming 53rd session, member states should re-introduce a resolution to debate the High Commissioner’s report on the human rights crisis in XUAR. In the absence of a UN mechanism mandated to investigate XUAR, other relevant UN experts, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, should prioritize monitoring the region and provide regular updates to member states. 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 tied to forced labor in China.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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