Conflict Alerts # 550, 8 September 2022
On 31 August, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released the “OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China.” The Assessment alleges several human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) under the government of China’s counter-terrorism and counter-extremism measures. The violations include torture, forced medical treatments, sexual and gender based violence against predominantly Uyghurs (comprising largely of Sunni Muslims) and other Muslim ethnic minorities in XUAR.
Following are the four major takeaways from the report.
1. China’s heavy-handed approach to XUAR and Uyghurs
The Assessment reveals a gradual increase in the Chinese government’s heavy-handed approach to XUAR. In a 2019 White Paper, the government responded to a UN query on the riots in 2009 in the regional capital. The government claimed that “separatist, terrorist and extremist forces” had killed civilians and police officers in thousands of attacks from 1990 to 2016. The White Paper claimed that Xinjiang had destroyed thousands of violent and terrorist gangs, punished people for “illegal religious activities” and confiscated copies of “illegal religious materials” under the “Strike Hard” campaign. The government believed its measures were successful and declared that since 2016, the XUAR did not face any terrorist incident. Prior to the White Paper, a XUAR Regulation on De-extremification (XRD) in 2017 listed and prohibited 15 “primary expressions of extremification.” The Assessment, however, says the said expressions fall within the purview of fundamental freedom, including sporting a beard or women wearing Hijab. The Assessment is therefore critical of the vague language by the government used in framing policies towards XUAR, which are seemingly targeting the Muslims.
2. Concerns over re-education camps
The report outlines the emergence of Vocational Education and Training Centres (VETC) or re-education camps, facilitated by the 2018 amendment of the Xinjiang Implementing Measures for the PRC Counterterrorism Law (XIM). The re-education camps aim to deradicalise and rehabilitate persons previously influenced by extremism. Three categories of people can be placed in the VETCs; first, those convicted for terrorism or extremism; second, people who were coerced into participating in terrorist or extremist acts or those who participated in such acts in situations not serious enough to constitute a crime; third, people who participated in terrorist or extremist activities that were a real threat but did not cause harm. China claims that the VETCs, which it describes as “schools by nature,” have ceased operations since 2019. The Assessment raises several concerns regarding VETCs. First, though the VETCs were established in 2018, people were referred to the facilities as early as 2017. Second, the reasons for referrals to VETCs fall within a person’s fundamental freedom. Third, a person has limited to no choice against detention in VETCs.
3. Human rights situation in camps
The Assessment quotes interviewees who were detained in VETCs; experiences outlined by them amount to torture and ill-treatment during interrogation. The torture includes being strapped to a chair and being beaten with an electric baton, depriving the VETCs inmates of sleep and ensuring that they could not pray or speak their language, compulsory political teaching and singing patriotic songs until the inmates faces were red with veins popping out, administering of pills that made them drowsy, sexual violence including rape of women and forced nudity.
4. Lack of compliance with international law
The Assessment reviews each of the above measures concluding that China has not abided by international law. For example, The Assessment reiterates that international law calls for States to implement counter-terrorism laws while respecting human rights. The Assessment further outlines that placing persons in the VETCs deprives liberty and violates Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, protecting against arbitrary detention. Beijing’s measures in XUAR also violate the freedom of religion and emphasise that campaigns like Strike Hard are discriminatory towards minorities.
Although the assessment by the United Nations on the violation of human rights in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China is one of its kind, numerous countries and international organizations have raised their concerns about the situation multiple times during the last decade.
Other recent reports on Xinjiang
Besides the United Nations report on Xinjiang, countries have published their own reports to address the Uyghur issue in Xinjiang.
International Religious Freedom Report by the Office of International Religious Freedom of US Department of State (2019)
The Office of International Religious Freedom is a bureau under the US Department of State. It monitors religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommends and implements policies in respective regions or countries, and develops programs to promote religious freedom.
The report examined the state of international religious freedom. A part of the report focused on the violation of religious freedom in Xinjiang. The report highlighted the religious demography in the region and observed that 63 per cent of the population in Xinjiang belonged to a minority. Second, the government recognized five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Despite recognizing Islam as one of the religions, there were numerous restrictions such as bans on long beards, full-face coverings, interference in family planning, weddings and other cultural practices. Third, the US report observed that the Chinese government underlined ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism as the “three evils,” and individuals suspected of being involved in any of the above were detained and punished by the state.
The Global Engagement Center is an interagency entity at the US State Department. It is charged with coordinating US counterterrorism messaging to foreign audiences.
In August 2022, the Global Engagement Centre of the US Department of State also published a report titled “PRC Efforts To Manipulate Global Public Opinion on Xinjiang.” The report claimed that China’s actions in Xinjiang and on issues related to Xinjiang aimed to discredit independent reporting while flooding the media with its narratives instead. The report accused China of using messengers to drown the truth, disguising the people’s torture, using AI to create an alternative reality, silencing dissent, and using transnational repression, cyberbullying and trolling.
Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament’s report on “The UK’s Responsibility to Act on Atrocities in Xinjiang and Beyond”
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament is one of the many select committees that produce a wide range of publications, including reports and records of evidence sessions and debates.
In July 2021, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament published the “The UK’s Responsibility to Act on Atrocities in Xinjiang and Beyond” report and called on countries to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The report emphasized the forced labour programmes, arbitrary detention in re-education camps, cultural erasure, torture, systemic rape, forced sterilisations, and high-tech surveillance of the community. The report focused on the loss of the Uyghur diaspora and culture due to China’s anti-terrorism policies, the rampant forced labour in the camps, and the use of technology and research by the Chinese government to suppress the community. The report recommended the appointment of a Special Envoy on Atrocity Prevention to ensure the country’s responsibility towards protecting human rights worldwide.
Canada announces new measures to address the Uyghur issue in China
In January 2021, the Canadian government expressed the country’s concerns regarding the human rights situation in Xinjiang and announced measures to address the same. Canada adopted a comprehensive approach to prevent the sale of goods produced from forced labour and thereby avoid being a part of the human rights abuse in the region. The process called for seven actions: prohibition of good made in Xinjiang, pledging to the Xinjiang Integrity Declaration for Canadian companies, providing a business advisory on Xinjiang-related entities, providing enhanced advice to Canadian businesses, exerting export controls, increasing awareness for Responsible Business Conduct linked with Xinjiang, and studying the supply chain risks linked with the forced labour.
European Union resolution on “Forced labour and the situation of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”
On 17 December 2020, the Parliament of the European Union adopted the resolution on forced labour and the situation of the Uyghur community in the Xinjiang region. The report accused China of forceful labour and exploitation of minorities. The Parliament strongly condemned the government’s actions while demanding an end to the arbitrary detention, shutting down all camps and ceasing the government-sponsored mass sterilization.
Japanese Diet resolution on Serious Human Rights Situation in Xinjiang
In February 2022, Japan’s lower house passed the resolution proposed by four members of the house. First, the resolution expressed the Japanese concerns about the human rights situation of the Uyghurs and the other minorities in the Xinjiang region. Second, the resolution also shed light on the infringement of freedom and forceful confinement of individuals, not just in Xinjiang, but also in Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Hong Kong. Third, the resolution further promised that Japan will take a firm stand on the issue by adopting a substantiative and solid political document and urged the international community to monitor the situation while offering help to the needy.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) Xinjiang Data Project
ASPI is an independent, non-partisan think tank that produces expert and timely advice for Australia’s strategic and defence leaders.
The Xinjiang Data Project of the ASPI was supported by the US government’s State Department and aimed at bridging the information gap on the issue. The focus of the study was mass internment camps, surveillance and emerging technologies, forced labour and supply chains, the ‘re-education’ campaign, deliberate cultural destruction and other human rights abuses. As a part of the project, the ASPI released a number of reports on the Communist Party’s influence operations, the repression of the minorities, the re-education programmes and the surveillance, the detention system and more.
China has always responded to all and every criticism on its policies in the Xinjiang region with the utmost disdain and urged countries to refrain from interfering in the country’s internal affairs. On 2 September, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded to the report by the United Nations and called it a “patchwork of disinformation” that serves as a tool for the US and other western powers. Zhao declared the report to be illegal and invalid, accusing the assessment of being biased. China promised to pursue human rights development with Chinese characteristics only and not get influenced by the Western definition of human rights.
Immediately after the United Nations published the Assessment, China rejected the document with a release of a 131-page refutation. The Foreign Ministry also highlighted that more than 60 countries had sent a joint letter of opposition to the OHCHR along with 100 other non-governmental organizations.