China

1 June 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 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. An estimated 880,000 children in XUAR have been placed in state-run orphanages or boarding schools. In May 2022 the Associated Press reported that nearly one in 25 people in XUAR’s Konasheher county has been sentenced to prison on “terrorism-related” charges, in what is the world’s highest known imprisonment rate. 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. In May an array of 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 people who try to escape.

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. 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. Xinjiang’s cotton sector produces 20 percent of the world’s 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.

Uyghurs in XUAR and around the world face surveillance by the Chinese government. In April 2022 the Woodrow Wilson Center released a report on transnational repression, finding 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.

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 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. The Xinjiang Police Files further implicates top officials and demonstrates how 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 or 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 crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghurs and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:

After requesting unfettered access to XUAR for over three years, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, traveled to China on a non-investigative visit in May 2022.

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, France, Lithuania, Netherlands and United Kingdom (UK) have also recognized the situation in Xinjiang as constituting genocide and/or crimes against humanity.

The governments of Canada, UK, US and the European Union have sanctioned officials over human rights abuses in XUAR and have taken steps to ban goods tied to Uyghur forced labor. The US government’s Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act takes effect on 21 June 2022, preventing the import of goods made “in whole or in part” in XUAR from entering the country.

In October 2021 the government of France delivered a statement on behalf of 43 countries at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, urging China to end the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims and allow independent observers immediate access to Xinjiang.

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.

In April 2022 the UN Special Rapporteurs on minority issues and on freedom of religion or belief expressed concern about the arbitrary arrest of two Uyghurs in Saudi Arabia and their imminent extradition to China.

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 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights must publicly release its report on human rights violations in XUAR immediately. 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. UNESCO should investigate cultural destruction 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 in China.

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