The treatment of ethnic Uyghurs 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 Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have increased their repression of members of the ethnic Uyghur (or 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.
An estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities without formal charges or due process. During September the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report that identified more than 380 suspected detention facilities in XUAR, including so-called “re-education” camps, detention centers and prisons, that have been built or expanded since 2017. Additionally, an estimated 250,000 children under the age of 15 in XUAR have lost one or both parents to detention, with many placed into state-run orphanages or boarding school facilities, according to data published by The Economist.
During March ASPI reported that over 80,000 Uyghurs 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, Nike and Samsung. The New York Times has also identified companies in China using forced Uyghur 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 forcibly reduce birth rates among Uyghurs and other Muslim populations in XUAR. According to investigations, the practice of forced birth control has been widespread in Xinjiang since 2017 and includes forced abortions and sterilizations. Authorities have also engaged in the systematic destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage, including by demolishing shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage sites. Approximately 16,000 mosques have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies.
China has also expanded its pervasive surveillance across XUAR. Authorities monitor the daily lives of almost all Uyghurs 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 that 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.
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 Uyghur persecution and expanded the detention camps.
Under customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the widespread or systematic persecution of Uyghurs 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 Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has requested that China permit access to carry out an independent assessment of reports of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions. On 30 June 2020 the United Kingdom delivered a statement to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) on behalf of 27 countries urging China to allow the High Commissioner meaningful access to Xinjiang. On 6 October Germany delivered a statement to the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) Third Committee on behalf of 39 governments, calling on China to allow independent observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang” and refrain from arbitrarily detaining Uyghurs and other minorities.
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 14 September US Customs and Border Protection issued five “Withhold Release Orders” that prevent goods from being imported when made with forced labor in China.
On 21 October the Canadian Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights called on the government of Canada to “recognize that the acts being committed in Xinjiang against Uyghurs constitute genocide.” The statement reminded the Canadian government of its “responsibility to protect Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims under the international norm that it helped to establish.”
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 Uyghur children from their families, stop the practice of forcibly preventing births, and cease the deliberate destruction of the unique cultural heritage of the Uyghur population.
The Chinese government should grant unfettered access to the Office of the UN 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 Uyghur population.
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