Detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang: A gross violation of human rights by China?


Satellite images expose China's vast network of secret re-education camps  in Xinjiang - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Re-education camps in Xinjiang – the frontier of fear


by Eshvar Girish and Kritika Trivedi         12 September 2020

Under the guise of ‘global war on terrorism’, China has arbitrarily detained nearly 1 million Uyghurs, Xinjiang’s Turkic-speaking Muslims in educational and vocational training camps. They are constantly subjected to intense surveillance, forced indoctrination, forced abortions, mass sterilizations, and religious restrictions. These actions are not only in the violation of China’s international commitments but also its domestic laws. With this background, this article tries to uncloak the reality of China’s oppressive actions against the Uyghurs that disregard their human rights in the public domain.

International human rights law is applicable to China through treaties as well as customary international law due to the inhumane situation that can be witnessed in Xinjiang. Presently, China is a signatory to four International Conventions on human rights, i.e., the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the  International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, (ICEFRD) the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) and, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). China’s actions towards Uyghurs have been in contravention of all these conventions.

According to a report by anthropologist, Dr. Adrian Zenz, the Uyghur women are not only forced to have abortions but are also forced to have intra-uterine contraceptive devices inserted in their bodies without their consent. This has transformed Xinjiang into a ‘draconian police state’ that intrudes on the autonomy of women. Such actions by the Chinese authorities go against the essence of CEDAW which emphasizes that the role of women in reproduction must not be a ground for discrimination.

Furthermore, Chinese authorities have violated Article 1 of the ICEFRD that condemns the impairing of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the spheres of political, social, cultural, or any other sphere of life-based on color, descent, race, or national or ethnic origin, through their act of forced internment of the Uyghurs based on their ethnicity and religion.

Map indicating the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.


China has sinicized the Islamic religion by disallowing the Uyghurs from having long beards or having Muslim names thereby violating Article 1 of ICESCR, which states that all people have the right to self-determination by the virtue of which they are allowed to determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development freely. Further, China’s abstinence from enlarging the scope of the term ‘peoples’ to provide a wider interpretation under the ICESCR unlike, the other signatories depicts its intention of restricting the human rights of the Chinese people according to its will.

Subsequently, China has neither established a competent authority nor has taken efforts to conduct an investigation even though there have been several reports that the Uyghurs are being tortured, thereby violating Article 12 of UNCAT. The said article mandates that the competent authorities of the state must conduct a prompt and impartial investigation if there are reasonable grounds to believe that acts of torture have been committed in any of the territories that fall under its jurisdiction.

Further, it is important to take cognizance of the fact that the Chinese authorities have blatantly violated their own Constitution. Article 4 prohibits any act that undermines the unity of the nationalities whereas Article 22 upholds the protection of China’s historical and cultural heritage. Further, Article 35 not only recognizes the freedom of speech of assembly but also of procession and demonstration. Additionally, Article 36 states that no state organ can compel citizens to believe in any religion and protects normal religious activities but has failed to specify how the term ‘normal’ must be interpreted. Lastly, Article 37 of the Chinese Constitution clearly states that ‘Unlawful detention or deprivation or restriction of citizen’s freedom of the person by any means is prohibited’ but the Chinese authorities have failed to pay heed to the same.

Even though China has explicitly laid down International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as one of the fundamental principles of its 2009-2010 National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP), it has failed to take into account the commitments of the ICCPR such as unlawful detention and prohibition against torture. Further, it is necessary to point out that China has refrained from ratifying ICCPR even after becoming a signatory of the same. While China has ignored its obligations under NHRAP and its constitution, the authors argue that the provisions regarding human rights will still be applicable to China by the virtue of erga omnes norms. Further, China’s human right violations against the Uyghurs has seen a meteoric rise which has resulted in genocide and crimes against humanity. Both these crimes are against the mandate of jus cogens that are peremptory norms under international law and they cannot be violated by any state.

In light of the human rights violations by China, the United States (US) has enacted the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, wherein various government bodies of the United States report on the human rights abuses by the Chinese authorities against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Alongside it, the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act, 2020, imposes various restrictions related to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, including the prohibition of certain imports from Xinjiang and imposing sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations in the region.  The US is authorized to impose such obligations and sanctions on different countries by virtue of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, 2017 which empowers the US president to block or revoke the visas of certain ‘foreign persons’ (both individuals and entities) or to impose property sanctions on them acting as a deterrent to unlawful violence.

The fact that China has been successfully able to hide the deplorable state of the Uyghurs is due to their extreme censorship laws which is again in the violation of their Constitution that provides for the freedom of the press. It is important to realize that during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has not only become a strenuous task to find out about the living conditions of Uyghurs, but it is also oblivious whether they have access to basic amenities like proper sanitation and face masks. While the whole world seems to be practicing social distancing during the pandemic, Uyghurs are compelled to stay in small rooms where they need to take turns to sleep on the basis of their shifts. In such a scenario, one infected Uyghur can end up endangering the lives of a million detainees present at the camp but the same would never come to light due to the rigid censorship laws of China. The active concealment of such information especially during the times of a public health emergency is in blatant violation of the International Health Regulations. Further, concealing information by the public authorities flouts the basic civil and political rights of Chinese citizens as well as the Uyghurs.

The enforcement of the International Conventions and the US legislations have unfortunately not borne any positive results concerning the humanitarian crises faced by the Uyghurs. Thus, the time has come for the members of the UN Human Rights Council to take initiative and solve the crisis prevalent in China since the crimes committed against the Uyghurs have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.