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Explained: The UN Report On Human Rights Violations In China's Xinjiang, Uighur Internment Camps And Chinese Abuses

The United Nations report on human rights violations in Xinjiang by the Chinese government has noted that its actions 'may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity'.

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Paramilitary policemen patrol the streets near the Peoples Square in Urumqi, Xinjiang.
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In its strongest words yet on the Chinese excesses in Xinjiang province, a United Nations (UN) report has concluded that "serious human rights violations" against the Uighurs and "other predominantly Muslim communities" have been committed. 

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also noted in its report that the Chinese government's actions in Xinjiang likely amount to "crimes against humanity". 

The long-awaited UN report is the latest indictment of Chinese state, which has been repeatedly accused by human rights activists and media investigations of repressive policies in Xinjiang and detention of millions of Uighur people, most of them Muslims, in internment camps which China calls "re-education camps" but are alleged to be like Nazi concentration camps. 

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Here we explain who are Uighur people, what China is accused of doing with them in Xinjiang and why it's doing it, and highlight the findings of the UN report.

Who are Uighur people in China's Xinjiang?

The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people who mostly live in northwestern China's Xinjiang province, formally called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). They are also spelled alternatively also spelled as Uyghurs and Uygurs. They mostly follow Sunni Islam in China. 

"There were some 1,00,00,000 Uyghurs in China and a combined total of at least 3,00,000 in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan in the early 21st century," according to Britannica Encyclopaedia, which adds that they have recorded existence in China from 3rd century CE.

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Though the Xinjiang province is named after Uighurs, they make up less than half the province's population as Han Chinese people have been settled into the province since 1950s, which has picked up pace since 1990s. 

"Recent decades have seen a mass migration of Han Chinese (China's ethnic majority) into Xinjiang, allegedly orchestrated by the state to dilute the minority population there," notes BBC.

Xinjiang is mostly a desert region. It produces up to a fifth of world's cotton. Among the many allegations against the Chinese in Xinjiang is that they force the Uighur people into the cotton cultivation and harvesting against their wishes, which is then exported. 

The findings of the UN report on Xinjiang

The UN report on Xinjiang has found that the Chinese government imposes severe human rights restrictions and practices discrimination in the province. It also found that allegations of targeted sexual abuse are credible. 

The allegations of patterns of torture, or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention, are credible, as are allegations of individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence, said UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

The Chinese government claims that it places people in Vocational Education and Training Centres (VETCs) for counter-terrorism and counter-extremism purposes. The UN in a press release noted that "the [Chinese] government policy in recent years in Xinjiang has 'led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights'. Even if the VETC system has as China says, been reduced in scope or wound up, 'the laws and policies that underpin it remain in place', leading to an increased use of imprisonment."

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It further says, "The systems of arbitrary detention and related patterns of abuse since 2017 'come against the backdrop of broader discrimination' against Uyghur and other minorities."

The UN report lists the following reasons for putting people in these VETCs, which the world alleges to be internment camps:

  • having too many children 
  • being an "unsafe person" 
  • being born in certain years
  • being an ex-convict, 
  • wearing a veil or beard 
  • having applied for a passport and not having left the country

The report also finds that inmates do not have safeguards that are mandated as per international norms. "Detainees do not appear to have access to lawyers or to be informed of the duration for their placement or the criteria for release, which are not spelled out in the law," said the UN report.

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The report bluntly states that the criteria to refer a person to VETCs —or re-education camps, as China also calls them— is not based on law but on a person's "ethnic, religious and cultural identity and expression", making the entire exercise arbitrary and discriminatory.

"Finally, considering that the criteria for referral to VETC facilities are in large measure based on forms of ethnic, religious and cultural identity and expression, there is a significant concern that deprivations of liberty in VETC facilities are applied discriminatorily, which compounds the arbitrary character of detention in the centres," said the UN report.

What's reported about Uighurs' repression in Xinjiang?

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While the UN report has noted sexual abuse and has termed the Uighurs treatment as arbitrary and discriminatory, the extent of allegations made by activists and international media organisations' investigations are much more serious and detailed. 

The estimates for the number of detained Uighurs range between 8-30 lakhs. Vox explains: "The Chinese Communist Party has arbitrarily detained between 1 million and 3 million other Uighurs in so-called 'reeducation centers' and forced them to undergo psychological indoctrination programs, such as studying communist propaganda and giving thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese officials have also reportedly used waterboarding and other forms of torture, including sexual abuse, as part of the indoctrination process."

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Vox noted that it is the "largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority group since World War II", when Jews were held in concentration camps and killed and tortured by Nazi Germany.

They have no legal representation in these camps and are not even charged of a crime. The punishment of an escape can even be death. The BBC reported, citing leaked internal documents, that if an imate escapes, an alarm is sounded and armed team pursues the escaping inmate. "After a warning shot is fired, if the 'student' continues to try to escape, the order is clear: shoot them dead," reported BBC.

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The influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang has also reduced the native Uighurs to a minority in the province, leading to conclusions that the Chinese government is aiming at eroding Uighurs' religious and cultural identity in the province, just like they are accused to have done in Tibet.

"The information paints an increasingly alarming picture of what appears to be a strategic campaign by Beijing to strip Muslim-majority Uyghurs of their cultural and religious identity and suppress behavior considered to be unpatriotic," reported CNN in 2020 on the basis of leaked internal Chinese documents.

The idea behind the "re-education" of the people is to replace their ethnic, religious, or cultural identity with the Chinese national identity which is associated with the Han Chinese people. 

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There is also evidence of gender-specific violence, with Vox noting that an "investigation found evidence that Chinese authorities subjected Uighur women to mass sterilisation, forcing them to take birth control or have abortions and putting them in camps if they resist". 

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in its investigation found 380 detention centres, which continued to grow over time despite Chinese assertions that the scope of detentions has been reduced over the years. Using satellite imagery, the ASPI found 380 detention centres. 

"At least 61 detention sites have seen construction and expansion between July 2019 and July 2020. This includes at least 14 facilities still under construction in 2020," reported ASPI.

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It further reported, "Of these new and expanded sites, about 50 per cent are higher security facilities, which may suggest a shift in usage from the lower-security, ‘re-education centres’ toward higher-security prison-style facilities."

This suggests that China is not toning town its mis-treatment of the Uighurs but it's instead stepping up its detentions aimed at the erosion of their cultural and religious identity. 

China's justification of its actions

China has rejected the accusations of detentions, discrimination, and human rights violations in the Xinjiang province. It has instead claimed that its centres are rehabilitation centres to wean people off terrorism and extremism. 

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The Chinese government is concerned about the radicalisation among Uighurs and believes there is a separatist movement in the province. There is indeed a sense of togetherness among Uighurs with people sharing their ethnicity beyond Chinese borders. BBC notes that they "see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations".

There have been clashes between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese people, with "a particularly violent outbreak occurred in July 2009, mainly in Ürümqi, in which it was reported that nearly 200 people (mostly Han) were killed and some 1,700 were injured," according to Britannica, which also adds that there have been knife and suicide bombings too.

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While there is indeed evidence of some separatist sentiment and an organised movement, China is accused to use it as an excuse for the widespread persecution in Xinjiang.

"Some Uyghurs living there refer to the region as East Turkestan and argue that it ought to be independent from China," notes the Council on Foreign Relations in its backgrounder. 

The separatism movement is helmed by the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The UN Security Council says that ETIM "has used violence to further its aim of setting up an independent so-called “East Turkistan” within China" and it's active in South Asia, Central Asia and Xinjiang.

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It further noted, "ETIM has received significant support from Al-Qaida and the Taliban, and previously from Usama bin Laden and has sent its members to Al-Qaida and Taliban training camps. Upon completion of training, ETIM members have traveled to Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya of the Russian Federation, and China to conduct terrorist and other violent acts. ETIM is also considering using Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as transit routes for the illegal transfer of fighters to China."

The international community is, however, not convinced of China's justifications. The US government maintains that the Chinese government has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. 

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"To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," says the UN.

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