The treatment of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China may amount to crimes against humanity and genocide.
Under the guise of combatting religious extremism and terrorism, in recent years the government of China and authorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have increased their repression of members of the ethnic Uighur community as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslim minorities. China’s policies have resulted in large-scale arbitrary detention, severe restrictions on religious practice and pervasive surveillance of the country’s Muslim population.
Approximately 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are currently being detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities without formal charges or due process. During August Buzzfeed News reported that since 2017 China has built 286 compounds in XUAR, each containing multiple detention facilities, to accommodate “the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II.”
On 1 March the Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported that over 80,000 Uighurs are also working under “conditions that strongly suggest forced labor,” with many transferred directly from detention camps to factories across China. These factories are part of supply chains that provide goods for 83 global brands, including Apple, BMW and Samsung. On 19 July the New York Times identified companies in China using forced Uighur labor to make face masks and other medical supplies that have been sold globally during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Chinese government is also conducting a campaign to reduce birth rates among Uighurs and other Muslim populations in XUAR. According to investigations, the practice of forced birth control has been widespread and systematic in Xinjiang since 2017 and includes forced abortions and sterilizations. The government has also reportedly separated nearly half a million Muslim children from their families, often denying access to information on their location.
China has also expanded its pervasive surveillance across XUAR. Authorities monitor the daily lives of almost all Uighurs by collecting DNA during medical checkups, surveilling mobile and online communications, and installing a GPS tracking system on all vehicles. Data is used to profile individuals prior to sending them to “re-education” camps. During February the Associated Press published leaked information from a database profiling detainees from Karakax County, XUAR. The database demonstrates that the Chinese government focused on religious devotion as one of the main reasons for detention, including engaging in ordinary activities such as fasting, praying or regularly attending mosque. Additionally, Uighurs in Xinjiang are punished for the behavior of their family members abroad.
Authorities have also engaged in the systematic destruction of Uighur cultural heritage. At least 100 historic Uighur cemeteries, shrines and mosques have been partially destroyed or completely demolished across XUAR.
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. Leaked government documents reveal that the crackdown in Xinjiang was a result of pressure from senior officials, including President Xi Jinping, who in 2014 called for a “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism” to be conducted with “absolutely no mercy.” The Communist Party Secretary of XUAR, Chen Quanguo, subsequently intensified Uighur persecution and expanded the detention camps.
Under customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the widespread or systematic persecution of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities on religious, cultural, ethnic and gender grounds; the large-scale detention program; abuse of detainees; enforced sterilization; and denial of information regarding the fate of persons in state custody in XUAR, could constitute crimes against humanity.
The Chinese government also appears to be 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 the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has requested access to China to carry out an independent assessment of reports of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions. On 30 June 2020 the United Kingdom (UK) delivered a statement to the Human Rights Council (HRC) on behalf of 27 countries urging China to allow the High Commissioner meaningful access to Xinjiang. On 26 June a group of 50 UN Special Procedures mandate holders called for the establishment of an impartial and independent UN mechanism to monitor and report on the grave human rights situation in China.
On 17 June United States (US) President Donald Trump signed the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020,” which calls for financial sanctions and visa bans to be issued under the Global Magnitsky Act. Since then the US has sanctioned two entities and seven officials in connection with human rights abuses in XUAR. The US has also placed 48 Chinese entities on a trade blacklist due to their business involvement in the region.
On 6 July lawyers in the UK filed a complaint with the ICC on behalf of two Uighur exile organizations, urging the Court to investigate Chinese government officials for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The government of China should immediately halt widespread violations and abuses of human rights in XUAR and repeal the “Regulation on De-extremification.” The authorities should release all Muslims being arbitrarily detained in “re-education camps” and related facilities. The authorities should immediately end the enforced separation of Uighur children from their families, stop the practice of forcibly preventing births, and cease the deliberate destruction of the unique cultural heritage of the Uighur population.
The Chinese government should grant unfettered access to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. UN bodies, including the HRC, should mandate a Special Rapporteur or fact-finding mission to investigate systematic violations of human rights in XUAR.
Recognizing the important influence they may have in urging China to reconsider its policies, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Muslim-majority countries and neighboring states should urge China to respect the rights of Muslim minorities and cease their persecution of the Uighur population.
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