China’s Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims
April 19, 2021 News Release
Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins. Completely shovel up the roots of “two-faced people,” dig them out, and vow to fight these two-faced people until the end.
—Maisumujiang Maimuer, Chinese religious affairs official, August 10, 2017, on a Xinhua Weibo page
In May 2014, the Chinese government launched the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” (严厉打击暴力恐怖活动专项行动) in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang or XUAR) against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Research by Stanford Law School’s Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic and Human Rights Watch, along with reports by human rights organizations, the media, activist groups, and others, and internal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents, show that the Chinese government has committed—and continues to commit—crimes against humanity against the Turkic Muslim population.
This report sets forth the factual basis for that conclusion, assessing available information about Chinese government actions in Xinjiang within the international legal framework.
Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), crimes against humanity are serious specified offenses that are knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population. “Widespread” refers to the scale of the acts or number of victims. A “systematic” attack indicates a pattern or methodical plan. Crimes against humanity can be committed during peace time as well as during armed conflict, so long as they are directed against a civilian population.
Crimes against humanity are considered among the gravest human rights abuses under international law. The specific crimes against humanity documented in this report include imprisonment or other deprivation of liberty in violation of international law; persecution of an identifiable ethnic or religious group; enforced disappearance; torture; murder; and alleged inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to mental or physical health, notably forced labor and sexual violence.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in China’s northwest, is the only region in China with a majority Muslim population. The Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other communities in the region are ethnically Turkic. Unlike the majority Han Chinese, who are primarily Chinese speakers, the Turkic population is predominantly Muslim and have their own languages. According to the 2010 census, Uyghurs made up 46 percent and Kazakhs 7 percent of the Xinjiang population.
The Chinese government’s oppression of Turkic Muslims is not a new phenomenon, but in recent years has reached unprecedented levels. As many as a million people have been arbitrarily detained in 300 to 400 facilities, which include “political education” camps, pretrial detention centers, and prisons. Courts have handed down harsh prison sentences without due process, sentencing Turkic Muslims to years in prison merely for sending an Islamic religious recording to a family member or downloading e-books in Uyghur. Detainees and prisoners are subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, cultural and political indoctrination, and forced labor. The oppression continues outside the detention facilities: the Chinese authorities impose on Turkic Muslims a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance, cultural and religious erasure, and family separation.
The United States State Department and the parliaments of Canada and the Netherlands have determined that China’s conduct also constitutes genocide under international law. Human Rights Watch has not documented the existence of the necessary genocidal intent at this time. Nonetheless, nothing in this report precludes such a finding and, if such evidence were to emerge, the acts being committed against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang—a group protected by the 1948 Genocide Convention—could also support a finding of genocide.
In 2017, according to official statistics, arrests in Xinjiang accounted for nearly 21 percent of all arrests in China, despite people in Xinjiang making up only 1.5 percent of the total population. Since 2017, Chinese authorities have used various pretexts to damage or destroy two-thirds of Xinjiang’s mosques; about half of those have been demolished outright. Important Islamic sacred sites have been demolished across the region. As part of regional authorities’ intrusive “Becoming Families” surveillance, development, and indoctrination campaign, officials impose themselves for overnight stays at the homes of Turkic Muslims, a practice that authorities say “promote[s] ethnic unity.” In another particularly chilling practice, some Turkic Muslim children whose parents have been arbitrarily detained are placed in state institutions such as orphanages and boarding schools, including boarding preschools.
The global response to these abuses has been increasingly critical. Some governments, such as Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the US, have imposed targeted and other sanctions on Chinese government officials, agencies, and companies implicated in rights violations. Increasingly, governments are joining statements at the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Third Committee, the human rights arm of the UN General Assembly, to condemn Chinese government policy. Nonetheless, many governments, including several members of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, still praise the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policies.
In July 2019, two dozen governments sent a letter to the Human Rights Council president urging “meaningful access” for the UN high commissioner for human rights to Xinjiang, and monitoring and reporting on alleged abuses against the Muslim population. The Chinese government responded by coordinating, though not itself joining, a letter signed by 50 countries, including Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other states with poor human rights records. In November 2019, a similar group of governments delivered a similar statement of concern at the UN Third Committee. China responded with a letter signed by 54 countries.
Throughout 2020, reports of abuses in Xinjiang increased, making it harder for governments to deny or avoid. In June 2020, 50 UN special procedures—special rapporteurs, working groups, and other human rights experts—issued a searing indictment of China’s human rights record, including the Chinese government’s “collective repression” of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. The experts called for a special session of the Human Rights Council on China, for the creation of a dedicated UN monitoring mechanism on China, and for UN agencies and governments to press China to meet its human rights obligations. In October 2020, a cross-regional group of 39 governments issued a stinging public rebuke of the Chinese government’s widespread human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet. The statement largely endorsed the call by the 50 UN special procedures. Instead of committing to investigate the allegations, the Chinese government responded with two separate statements, including one on Xinjiang read out by Cuba and signed by 45 countries.
Investigating China’s Crimes against Humanity
Ensuring justice for serious violations of human rights is the responsibility of the state that has jurisdiction over the area in which the crimes were committed. The state is obligated to ensure that domestic criminal justice mechanisms impartially investigate the alleged violations and identify and prosecute the individuals responsible in accordance with international fair-trial standards. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied that officials have committed abuses in Xinjiang and has been unwilling to conduct investigations or permitted independent international monitors to do so.
Historically, governments that fail to conduct investigations into serious human rights violations frequently invoke state sovereignty when other authorities, such as UN bodies or regional bodies, have sought to conduct investigations. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which went into effect in 2002, the court is empowered to investigate and prosecute individuals alleged to be most responsible for grave international crimes, including crimes against humanity, when the state with primary jurisdiction is unwilling or are unable to do so. Then the ICC can undertake a criminal investigation and prosecution if the suspected perpetrators are citizens of a state that is party to the ICC treaty, if the alleged violations are committed in the territory of an ICC member state, or if a non-member state asks the ICC to consider violations committed on its territory. China is not a party to the ICC statute. While the ICC could assume jurisdiction if the UN Security Council refers the situation in Xinjiang to the court, because China is a permanent member of the Security Council, its veto power could thwart such an action.
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. One approach would be for a United Nations commission of inquiry (COI) to be established to investigate alleged violations in Xinjiang. The COI should have a mandate to establish the facts, identify the perpetrators, and make recommendations to provide accountability. The COI should be comprised of eminent persons, including experts in international human rights law, crimes against humanity, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, and gender issues. This COI could be established through a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, though the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, and the UN secretary-general are also empowered to take such an action.
This report also sets out other recommendations for concerned governments to increase pressure on the Chinese government to change its abusive policies in Xinjiang, including pursuing individual criminal and state responsibility for these crimes, targeted sanctions, and actions under other UN mechanisms, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
Individual states should consider pursuing criminal cases under the concept of “universal jurisdiction,” which refers to the ability of a country’s domestic judicial system to investigate and prosecute certain grave crimes, such as torture, even if they were not committed on its territory. Many states have laws permitting prosecutions for such crimes if the victims were nationals of that state. Human rights treaties, such as the Convention against Torture and the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance, obligate states parties to extradite or prosecute suspected offenders who are under that state’s jurisdiction. Under customary international law, it is generally accepted that states may prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity.