China

1 September 2022
Risk Level: Current Crisis
Over 1 million Uyghurs and people from other majority-Muslim ethnic groups have been 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 Chinese government 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.

Over 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 these facilities. In May 2022 various news outlets published investigations on the “Xinjiang Police Files,” providing thousands of photographs of detained people and details on a shoot-to-kill policy for those who try to escape. 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 135 detention facilities in XUAR 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. An August 2022 report from 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 in XUAR, and in Tibet. The Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice has 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, implicating nearly the entire global solar panel industry 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.

Uyghurs in XUAR and around the world also face surveillance by the Chinese government. In April 2022 the Woodrow Wilson Center reported that since 1997 the Chinese government has targeted over 5,500 Uyghurs outside China, including over 1,500 Uyghurs who have been detained and forcibly returned to China.

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. Chinese authorities have also engaged in the systematic destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage, demolishing or damaging thousands of shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage sites.

According to the Helena Kennedy Centre, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a state-run paramilitary group, is responsible for myriad abuses targeting Uyghurs in XUAR, including systematic forced migration, forced labor, mass internment, land expropriation, repressive policing and religious persecution.

ANALYSIS:

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 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 implicates top officials and demonstrates how “so-called” counterterrorism is used to justify the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs.

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.”

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.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:

After requesting unfettered access to XUAR for over three years, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, traveled to China on a non-investigative visit in May 2022. On the last day of her term, High Commissioner Bachelet released her office’s long-awaited report on human rights in XUAR.

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.

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.

The governments of Canada, UK, 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 on 21 June 2022, preventing the import of goods made “in whole or in part” in XUAR from entering the country.

At the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) the Netherlands delivered a statement on behalf of 47 countries expressing concern about human rights abuses in XUAR, urging China to allow independent observers access to the region. In a June 2022 statement, 42 UN experts expressed serious concern about China’s human rights record, particularly in XUAR.

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.”

The HRC 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. UNESCO should 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 forced labor in China.

GET INVOLVED

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date on R2P news and alerts

Follow us on social media

CONTACT US

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA

Phone: +1 212-817-1929 | info@globalr2p.org
R2P Resources & Statements