China: Unrelenting Crimes Against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs

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Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pronouncement that China intends to maintain its counterterrorism policies in the northwestern Xinjiang region indicates continuing crimes against humanity there, Human Rights Watch said today. One year ago, on August 31, 2022, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a damning report finding that the Chinese government’s rights violations against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang “may constitute … crimes against humanity.”

Earlier in 2023, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, acknowledged the need for “concrete follow up” on the report’s conclusions. However, he has yet to brief the UN Human Rights Council on the report or on his office’s ongoing monitoring of the situation in Xinjiang.

“Over the past year, Chinese officials have maintained their abusive ‘strike hard’ policies, crushing the rights of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims,” said Maya Wang, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “UN member countries should not stay silent in the face of crimes against humanity.”

In a speech while traveling in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on August 26, President Xi affirmed “the outcomes of [China’s] Xinjiang policies.” He pledged to “consolidate hard-won social stability,” ensure that “the public [in Xinjiang] have correct views … on ethnicity, history and religion,” and “forge a consciousness of a united Chinese nation.”

Since 2017, the Chinese government has carried out a widespread and systematic attack against Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. It includes mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, separation of families, forced labor, sexual violence, and violations of reproductive rights. Human Rights Watch in 2021 concluded that these violations constituted “crimes against humanity.”

Since the 2022 UN report, Beijing has demonstrated little change in the trajectory of its Xinjiang policies. Although some “political re-education” camps appear closed, there has been no mass release from prisons, where a half million Turkic Muslims have been held since the start of the crackdown. Uyghurs abroad continue to have little to no contact with their family members, some do not even know if their loved ones taken into custody or forcibly disappeared are still alive. Xinjiang authorities also deepened their efforts to forcibly assimilate Uyghurs. The Xinjiang Communist Party secretary, Ma Xingrui, vowed in November 2022 to continue “counterterrorism and stability maintenance” measures, require “various ethnic groups … to fully embed” into the Chinese nation, “Sinicize” Islam so it is consistent with “socialist values,” and deepen cultural and ideological control over the region.

Foreign governments have condemned Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, and some have imposed targeted and other sanctions on Chinese government officials, agencies, and companies implicated in rights violations. Following the publication of the UN report, a group of countries tried to put the Xinjiang situation on the formal agenda of the UN Human Rights Council for discussion, which Beijing and its allies narrowly defeated. The razor-thin margin showed that long-overdue scrutiny of the Chinese government’s grave international crimes is within reach, Human Rights Watch said.

There is a pressing need for concerned governments to take strong, coordinated action to advance accountability given the gravity of the abuses in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said. The governments should:

Work toward the successful adoption of a UN resolution to set up an investigative mechanism, with a mandate to investigate alleged violations in Xinjiang, identify those responsible, and make recommendations to advance accountability.
Improve efforts to document the numbers and identities of those who remain detained, imprisoned, and forcibly disappeared in Xinjiang, and work toward reuniting families.
Impose targeted sanctions on Chinese officials implicated in serious abuses in Xinjiang.
Consider pursuing criminal cases under the concept of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows 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.
Türk, the UN rights chief, should update the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in Xinjiang, following up on the recommendations of his office’s report, and present an action plan for advancing accountability.

He should also spearhead an initiative, possibly jointly with special procedures mandate holders such as the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and with governments with Uyghur diaspora populations, to help victims and family members trace missing persons. Considerable information has already been gathered, some of which is publicly available. Yet there has been no high-level, coordinated initiative specifically focused on finding and pressing for the release of those arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.

“Governments and the UN rights office should seize the opportunity of the Xinjiang report anniversary to send a clear message that Beijing will not get away with grave international crimes,” Wang said. “They should announce a range of measures to hold the Chinese government accountable, and to compel the authorities to improve the lives of long-suffering Uyghurs.”

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