The treatment of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region may amount to crimes against humanity.
Under the auspices 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 ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Hui. China’s approach to combatting “religious extremism” has resulted in large-scale arbitrary detention, severe restrictions on religious practice, and pervasive surveillance and control 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. Former detainees have reported that while in state custody they were subjected to abuse and forced indoctrination. The government has also reportedly separated nearly half a million Muslim children from their families, often denying access to information on their location.
On 1 March the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report which found that over 80,000 Uighurs are working under “conditions that strongly suggest forced labor,” with many transferred directly from detention camps to factories across China. According to the report, these factories are part of supply chains that provide goods for 83 global brands, including Apple, BMW, Gap, Nike and Samsung.
China has also expanded its pervasive policing and surveillance system across XUAR. Authorities monitor the daily lives of almost all Uighurs, including religious gatherings and informal meetings. Authorities collect DNA during medical check-ups, install a GPS tracking system on all vehicles, and monitor all mobile and online communication. Data is reportedly used to profile persons at risk of “extremist thought” prior to being sent to “re-education” camps.
On 17 February The Associated Press published leaked information from a database that includes profiles of over 300 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 ordinary activities such as fasting, praying or attending mosque.
Authorities have also engaged in the systematic destruction of Uighur cultural heritage, including demolishing historic mosques and shrines. According to recent reports, at least 100 Uighur cemeteries as well as over 100 mosques have been partially destroyed or completely demolished in 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. Official Chinese government documents that were leaked during November 2019 reveal that the crackdown in Xinjiang was a result of pressure from senior officials. Following a visit to XUAR in April 2014, President Xi Jinping called for a “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism” to be conducted with “absolutely no mercy.” The Communist Party Secretary of XUAR, Chen Quanguo, then intensified Uighur persecution and drastically expanded the camps.
The large-scale detention program, abuse of detainees and lack of information regarding the fate of persons in state custody in XUAR could constitute crimes against humanity under international law. The targeted destruction of places of cultural significance may be part of a systematic attempt to eradicate Uighur cultural heritage in China.
Systematic discrimination against the Uighurs and other Muslims, as well as surveillance systems that target these groups, increase their vulnerability to violations and abuses of their fundamental human rights. There is growing evidence that the XUAR authorities are systematically punishing ethnic Uighurs simply for practicing their Muslim faith. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” for all human beings. This includes the freedom, “either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The government of China is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect and is perpetrating crimes against humanity with regard to the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
Twenty-two governments sent a letter to the President of the Human Rights Council (HRC) on 8 July 2019 calling upon China to halt its mass detention of ethnic Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. In response, on 12 July ambassadors from 37 governments sent a letter to the HRC President defending China’s policies.
On 8 October the United States (US) government imposed visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist Party officials “who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uighurs, Kazakhs, or other members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.” On 3 December the US House of Representatives passed the Uighur Act of 2019, calling for sanctions against senior officials responsible for serious human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
On 29 October the United Kingdom (UK) delivered a statement on behalf of 23 states at the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, urging China to respect freedom of religion and belief and to allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN Special Procedures “immediate unfettered, meaningful access to Xinjiang.”
During the opening of the 43rd session of the HRC, a number of governments, including Germany and the UK, expressed concern about the treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China. On 26 February China’s Ambassador told the HRC that his government was “looking forward to the visit of the High Commissioner, Mrs. Bachelet, to China including to Xinjiang this year.”
The government of China should immediately halt widespread violations and abuses of human rights in XUAR and repeal the “Regulation on De-extremification.” XUAR authorities should release all Uighurs and members of other minorities being arbitrarily detained in “re-education camps” and related facilities. The authorities should immediately end the enforced separation of Uighur children from their families and cease the deliberate destruction of the unique cultural heritage of Xinjiang.
Countries that receive asylum seekers from Xinjiang must ensure respect for the principles of non-refoulement and not force them to return to China, where they are at risk of further persecution. Multinational companies that use factories in China should conduct human rights due diligence and thoroughly investigate their supply chains.
The Chinese government should grant unfettered access to OHCHR. UN bodies, including the HRC, should consider mandating a fact-finding mission to investigate international crimes and systematic violations of human rights committed 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 systematic persecution of the Uighur population.
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