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A Modern Uyghur ‘Genocide’ in Xinjiang China

What is Happening in Xinjiang, China?

China’s authoritarian regime operates under the Chinese Communist Party (CPP), which systematically represses human rights. The CPP regularly arbitrarily detain human rights defenders, civil society is under tight control, and China deploys invasive surveillance technology. These abuses undermine the right to privacy and freedom of expression for those forced to live under this regime.

A Human Rights Watch report released in 2014, depicts a strict and brutal governmental control enforced in Xinjiang, China. Furthermore, China has committed widespread and systematic policies of mass detention, forced labour, torture, cultural persecution, sexual abuse and other offences against Uyghurs and members of other Turkic groups in Xinjiang. In addition to this, China has been forcibly mass sterilising Uyghur women to suppress the population. They have been separating children from their families, and attempting to break the group’s cultural traditions. These horrific human rights abuses amount to crimes against humanity.

The US State Department’s latest human rights report on China indicates an ongoing genocide against the Uyghur Muslims. Moreover, China has culturally persecuted one million Uyghur and Turkic Muslims since 2017. However, China denies any accusations of rights abuses claiming the camps are ‘vocational centres’ for eradicating extremism.

Who are the Uyghurs?

About 12 million Uyghurs, primarily Muslim, live in Xinjiang. Consequently, the Uyghurs have their own language and see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. They represent less than half of the population in Xinjiang. There have been accusations that China targets Muslim religious figures. In addition to this, China has banned religious ceremonies and eradicated religious structures such as mosques and tombs.

Reports of Over 1,200 Re-education Camps in Xinjiang, China.

China's re-education camps

Caption: Image obtained from Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

This image depicts that there are up to 1,200 re-education camps in Xinjiang. China built the Xinjiang detention camps in 2014 and rapidly expanded them in 2017. Hence, through analysing satellite imagery, nearly 37 of the camps tripled in size between April 2017 and August 2018.

Re-education camps (satellite view)
Caption: Image obtained from the BBC.

Satellite images from a camp near Dabancheng show the expeditious construction of camps in Xinjiang from 2015 to 2020.

Additionally, the United States 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, published in March 2022, contains a human rights report on China. The report is a searing indictment of China’s systematic rights abuses.

“Under China’s systematic repression in Xinjiang, ordinary people are locked away for years and subjected to the cruellest of conditions for entirely lawful activities,”

Joanne Mariner, Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International.

What is Happening in the Camps?

Due to the tight surveillance and censorship deployed in China, information is minimal. Therefore, detainees describe horrific conditions where China force them to pledge loyalty to the CPP, renounce their religion and support communism. China constantly monitors detainees who are subject to harsh punishment, and torture and are denied their fundamental human rights.

Reports describe how China detained prisoners and tortured them for no reason. Some of the torture methods included “pulling off fingernails; beating with sticks; detaining in ‘tiger chairs’ where feet and hands were locked in position for hours or days without a break; confined in containers up to the neck in cold water and detained in cages so small that standing or lying was impossible”. Furthermore, Chinese authorities carried out cruel crimes against humanity such as sexual abuse, starvation, solitary confinement and sleep deprivation were also listed.  

Uyghur Muslims
Caption: A glimpse inside the camp in Hotan Prefecture. Image obtained by Human Rights Watch from a government social media post in April 2017.

What is Next?

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Set To Visit China in May 2022

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has announced a visit to China in May 2022. The High Commissioner has been criticised for not ensuring adequate public diplomacy in response to China. The Commissioner requested unrestricted access to China at the end of 2019. The Commissioner highlighted how this issue was not appropriately addressed nearly three and half years later.

Additionally, there has been a long-awaited UN report on China’s alleged human rights abuses. Hence, in September 2021, amid growing frustration at the silence of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the dire situation, the High Commissioner informed the UN Human Rights Council that the OHCHR was “finalising its assessment of the available information to make it public.” Unfortunately, six months later, there is no report. The lack of urgency and action surrounding this issue severely undermines the credibility and reputation of the OHCHR and its perceived ability to address serious human rights violations against a significant world power like China.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Chinese Human Rights Defenders have highly criticised the silence and inaction of the office of the High Commissioner. Furthermore, these organizations have demanded immediate action and investigation into these abuses. The High Commissioner will visit China and the remote western region of Xinjiang. Additionally, the High Commissioner will visit the mass detention centre with 1 million Uyghur Muslims. Therefore, this upcoming visit represents a significant time for the OHCHR to take meaningful action to end the genocide in China.

Furthermore, with the potential risks of genocide in Ukraine, the world must focus on what more we can and must do to prevent genocide worldwide. World leaders have a moral and legal obligation to take action and help those suffering from these horrific crimes.

Laura Shorten
Laura Shorten is an Irish human rights consultant and researcher based in the Netherlands. Laura qualified with an International Bachelor of Social Sciences degree from University College Dublin. She majored in politics, international relations and social policy. Laura graduated from Technological University Dublin with a Postgraduate Diploma in Law. In 2021, she graduated with an Advanced LL.M in International Children’s Rights at Leiden University. Laura specializes in international law, children’s human rights, political science, international relations, middle eastern studies, refugee/migration law, gender studies, strategic litigation and global diplomacy. Laura has published various articles pertaining to international law and human rights violations occuring worldwide. Laura defended her Advanced Master’s Thesis entitled “An Analysis of the Convention on the Rights of the Child’s Legal Framework in Protecting Children’s Right to Health and Right to Life in the Face of Climate Change”. This thesis is published on the Leiden University website under the Advanced Master of Law Theses for children's rights. Laura has previously worked for UNICEF Ireland, campaigning for children worldwide who are facing discrimination and living in war zones.

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