31 August 2023
Risk Level: Current Crisis

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 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 northwestern 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 between 2017 and 2020, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. There are reports of widespread rape, sexual abuse and torture 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, including in agriculture and manufacturing sectors. Reports have identified at least 135 detention facilities in XUAR that have on-site factories where detainees are allegedly forced to work. 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.

The expansion of detention and labor facilities have been imposed in conjunction with increased restrictions on religious practice. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, at least 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. Authorities have also 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.

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 “Xinjiang Police Files” further implicate top officials and demonstrate how so-called counterterrorism is used to justify the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs.

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. At the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in September 2022 a group of 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.


During the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee on 31 October 2022, Canada delivered a statement on behalf of 50 cross-regional countries expressing grave concern about human rights in XUAR and recalled the findings of the High Commissioner’s report, which “makes an important contribution to the existing evidence of serious and systematic human rights violations in China.”

In November 2022 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination adopted a decision under its “early warning and urgent action procedure” and referred the situation to the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. During an interactive dialogue at the HRC with the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide on 4 July, delegations inquired about follow-up action by the Office regarding the referral.


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, including with mass surveillance, facilitates ongoing persecution and has turned XUAR into a de facto police state.

Efforts by UN member states to mobilize the HRC to hold a formal discussion on XUAR constitute an important step to increase scrutiny of ongoing atrocity crimes perpetrated by Chinese authorities.


    • A history of institutionalized discrimination due to real or perceived threats posed by Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups.
    • Dangerous rhetoric used by the Chinese government to depict Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim groups as terrorists.
    • Widespread or systematic practices or violence against the lives, freedom or physical and moral integrity of Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups, including policies that indicate an intent to erase and/or forcibly assimilate populations in XUAR.
    • Policies or measures that seriously affect the reproductive rights of women, including through forced sterilization.
    • Attacks against or destruction of homes, farms, businesses or other livelihoods of a protected group and/or their cultural or religious symbols and property.


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.” All of the recommendations issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should also be implemented.

At the HRC’s upcoming 54th session, member states should re-introduce a resolution to debate the High Commissioner’s report on XUAR. Relevant UN experts, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, should prioritize monitoring the region and provide regular updates to member states. States should utilize the upcoming Universal Periodic Review in January 2024 to draw attention and provide targeted recommendations to Chinese authorities to address ongoing atrocity crimes in XUAR.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Muslim-majority countries and neighboring states should urge China to cease their persecution of Uyghurs and other targeted groups. All UN member states should ban goods tied to forced labor in China.


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