Campaigners call for global response to ‘unprecedented’ oppression in Xinjiang


The Chinese government is committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, where it has escalated its oppression of Turkic Muslims to unprecedented levels, Human Rights Watch has said, as the NGO called on governments to take direct action against officials and companies that profit from labour in the region.

HRW also recommended the EU delay ratifying its recent trade agreement with China until forced labour allegations were investigated, victims compensated, and there was “substantial progress toward holding perpetrators to account”.

In a report produced with Stanford Law School’s Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, HRW called for stronger UN investigations and responses, and for allied countries to impose further sanctions as well as visa and travel bans, and to use domestic laws to prosecute perpetrators.

HRW said the government’s oppression of Turkic Muslims, including Uyghurs, was not a new phenomenon but had reached unprecedented levels.

Why more than 1 million Uighurs are being held in camps in China –  video explainer
Why more than 1 million Uighurs are being held in camps in China – video explainer

“Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013, the Chinese government has aggressively pursued assimilationist policies in ethnic minority regions, increasingly insisting on the ‘Sinicization’ of those communities, driven by nationalism and in many instances Islamophobia inside and outside China,” it said.

Defining crimes against humanity as “serious specified offences that are knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population”, the report found the strongest evidence in relation to enslavement, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty, torture, persecution, and enforced disappearances.

The report says the extent to which other violations were being perpetrated – including sexual violence against women and coercive fertility controls – was unclear, and the gravity of sexual violence allegations warranted further investigation.

The HRW report draws on new and recent research documenting the enactment of government policies in Xinjiang, and alleged human rights violations, finding many were supported by vast amounts of documentary evidence.

Chinese authorities have continued to deny due process and have arbitrarily detained an estimated 1 million people in hundreds of facilities, subjecting them to political and cultural indoctrination, torture and other ill-treatment, the report says. Outside the detention facilities Beijing operates a “a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance, cultural and religious erasure, and family separation”.

HRW said it had not yet documented the existence of the necessary “genocidal intent” to make a finding of genocide, as the Canadian, Dutch and Belgian parliaments, the US state department, and legal groups had done. “Nonetheless, nothing in this report precludes such a finding.”

China resolutely denies all accusations of wrongdoing in Xinjiang, and runs an increasingly vociferous global campaign to discredit accusers, deny allegations and findings, and promote the region as a “wonderful land” where minority communities are protected and celebrated. It refuses journalists and human rights groups free access to the area and repeatedly dismisses investigative findings as lies.

“Chinese authorities have systematically persecuted Turkic Muslims – their lives, their religion, their culture,” said Sophie Richardson, the HRW China director. “Beijing has said it is providing ‘vocational training’ and ‘deradicalisation’ but that rhetoric cannot obscure a grim reality of crimes against humanity.”

Worshippers pray during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the Ak mosque in Urumqi, north-west China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region
Worshippers pray during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the Ak mosque in Urumqi, north-west China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

HRW noted the difficulties in investigating abuses in Xinjiang and ensuring justice. Beijing frequently claims sovereignty to reject accusations against it, or coordinates letters of support to counter joint statements at the UN.

China is also not a signatory to the international criminal court and so the ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute individuals alleged to have committed international crimes. The only way for the ICC to assume jurisdiction is if the matter is referred to it by the UN security council, of which China is a permanent member with veto powers.

To address the worsening situation, HRW called for more coordination by world governments, which it described as “increasingly critical”. This could include targeted and other sanctions of government officials and agencies and companies implicated in violations of people’s rights, and joint government statements. “These sanctions will be more effective if pursued collectively,” it said.

Domestically, HRW recommended individual countries consider pursuing criminal cases under universal jurisdiction laws that permit a prosecution of certain crimes committed elsewhere if the victim was one of their own.

Government agencies should also review all investments in Xinjiang and impose trade sanctions, including divestment, in sectors facing “credible allegations of serious abuses such as forced labour”, it said, and on technology companies contributing to China’s mass surveillance operations. Any company operating in Xinjiang should also be subject to “legally binding requirements for human rights due diligence”.

To countries with Turkic Muslim diasporas, HRW called for guarantees of a fair asylum assessment and support process, the facilitation of family reunions, and an end to refoulement and other forced returns of people back to China.

“Given the gravity of the abuses against Turkic Muslims, there is a pressing need for concerned governments to take strong, coordinated action to advance accountability,” HRW said. It suggested the creation of a UN commission of inquiry, consisting of experts with a mandate to determine facts, identify perpetrators and make recommendations.

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