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Is China responsible for Uighur genocide or is it just dramatic escalation of false claims?

Who are Uighurs?

The Uighur are an ethnic minority group predominantly living in the northwestern region of China called Xinjiang, a Chinese term which means new frontier or borderland, officially called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and some in Central Asian republics like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan.

The population of Uighur Muslims as according to the official records of China is around 12 million while the World Uyghur Congress, a group of Uighur exiles advocating human rights in their homeland put their number around 20 million [i] living in and outside China. The Uighur of Xinjiang are chiefly Sunni Muslims and speak the language, which has Turkic roots. They have been practising Islam for centuries, tracing their religious influence to the Karakhanid, a Turkic fiefdom that ruled central Asia from the 9th to the 13th century.

How Have The Uighurs Become Targets Of What Many Are Calling Genocide?

When the newly created People's Republic of China government began settling People's Liberation Army soldiers on military farms in Xinjian, Chinese authorities began implementing discriminatory policies which lead to the creation of XUAR in the 1950s. As a result of such establishment, a larger number of Hans Chinese began populating Xinjiang, diluting the dominance of the Uighur population in their own homeland.

A major influx of Hans Chinese started when the Soviet Union collapsed and Beijing in the fear of instability started its 'Big Development of the Northwest' plan. Through this government introduced economic incentives which attracted Han’s settlers. This governmental approach further marginalized the Turkic Muslim community. The effects of the large migration of Hans Chinese on local culture and traditions exacerbated these tensions between the Turkic Muslims and Hans population.

The series of systematic repression of religion additionally intensified after the incident of 9/11 that didn’t just impact the US, Afghanistan, or the middle east, but also kick-started a major shift in the Chinese communist party's view about the Uighur people. The Chinese government started producing documents that linked about 40 diaspora groups from Europe, the US, and Turkey to entities of terrorists that are thought to be founded by Al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden. The Uighur found themselves on the receiving end of China's war on terror.

The Chinese government told the world that they faced a threat from the Uighur people and thus termed it as a 'counterterrorism issue'. They tried to draw the attention of other nations, but the world ignored it saying it is an internal issue of minority rights and human rights. Subsequently, in the name of combating counterterrorism, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) started a campaign in Xinjiang against what they called 3 evils- terrorism, extremism, and separatism. Little did people know that separatism included a silent twist - ideological separatism.

China used these ideas as a measure of justifying its brutal acts against the Uighur. Chinese government restricted books about Uighur's history, culture, and language. They interdicted their songs and took all their freedom of expression. This continued till the 2000s. The situation escalated on 5 July 2009 when a Uighur worker was killed in a toy factory by a mob of Hans workers, swayed by an unsubstantiated rumour of raping a Han woman in the factory.

This led to ethnic riots in the capital region, Urumqi between the Uighur and Hans. The Uighur students of the Xinjian University demonstrated in Urumqi to seek justice for the Uighur worker killed. The security forces came to suppress the protest, but the situation went out of control and turned into ethnic violence killing about 192 people and injuring thousands.

In the aftermath of this unrest, the CCP called Uighur a 'problematic religious nationalist' and began numerous human rights violations on Uighur people by engaging in arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, political and cultural indoctrination, and other unspeakable inhuman acts.

What Is Happening In The Camps According To The Evidence?

It is reported that the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) administration maintained a system of extrajudicial mass internment camps in which they have arbitrarily detained up to 1.8 million individuals from predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, especially the Uighurs. Prolific credible evidence has reported that the Chinese government with a deliberate strategy has subjected the Uighur to myriad crimes against humanity, which includes forced labour, abuse, murder, torture, and various other inhuman acts.

Former women detainees from these political education camps and police detention facilities have informed that birth control measures that were against Uighur communities’ traditional reticence were imposed on women to suppress the population of the Uighurs. It was Chinese propaganda against the Uighur community which described their population growth in the region of Xinjian as 'excessive', a catalyst of religious extremism and segregation, and a menace to national security.

The measures prevented reproduction either permanently or temporarily such as having intrauterine devices (IUDs) implanted non-consensually or through forced removal of their womb or sterilization. Tursunay Zinawudun, a former detainee said that she was held in a camp for nine months in 2018. She reported that masked men gang-raped her 3 times and the same men used electric shock on and inside her genitals. She also added that she had witnessed other inmates being rapped.[ii]

Evidence compiled in the aggregate suggests children being separated from their families and non-consensual placement of those children in an orphanage or in 'rescue, care and protection' centres where they are forced to speak, write, sing, dance in Chinese and sometimes even punished for speaking in their native language.

Many of these children were adopted by Han Chinese families. Due to restrictions on the movement of Uighur by tightening of passports, border crossings and punishments on contact with Uighur parents abroad, children are left stranded in Xinjiang. Many children have been left parentless due to mass cruel incarcerations. There is evidence that the Chinese authoritarian government used mass surveillance which tracked and monitored the activities of the Uighur.

A facet of this mass surveillance is the extensive and compulsory collection of their biometric data. Chinese authorities collected DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans and blood types from all Xinjian residents, as a part of a "medical examination program for all". But the Uighur’s biometrics were collected without any choice and consent.

The Xinjian authorities have also put network automated sensory systems, which induced CCTV cameras with facial recognition, automated license plate, recognition, and infrared capacities. Kitchen knives were tacked by QR codes that include the owner's ID number, photo, ethnicity and address and the vehicles were subject to mandatory location trackers.

The government has also hacked the smartphones of Uighurs around the world by embedding malicious software used by them which automatically turn on phones, microphones, record calls, export photos, chats, and phone locations. [iii] Various documents obtained from international media and rights groups revealed details regarding the scope and implementations of this mass internment camp system as well as authorities’ goals for putting the system in place.

The documents like The China Cables[iv] in which the International Consortium of Investigation Journalists reported leaked Chinese documents which included a highly confidential manual issued in 2017 by XUAR Political and Legal Affairs Commission regarding camp management, mandating the use of coercive force and punishments. It also included bulletins guiding authorities on how to use surveillance measures to determine whom to detain in the camp.

Another document like The Qaraqash document[v] released in February 2020, listed numerous detention protocols including, the local implementation of key features of intensive and brutal Uyghur crisis, particularly the regular use of integrated joint operation platform for surveillance and control, the Becoming Family program as a tool for identifying Uyghurs.

The instrument provides an astonishing inmate glimpse into the life circumstance and histories of internees. There are reports of the government banning Muslims from fasting during Ramadan or women wearing veils and men growing their beards long. Muslims were also allegedly forced to eat pork, which is prohibited in Islam. This multi-dimensional persecution provides a chilling evocative of Nazi enterprise.

What Are The World's Responses And Allegations Imposed Against China?

The world condemns the detention of Uighurs and the atrocities being done on them. Many countries allege it to be genocide. In January 2021, on U.S. President Donald J. Trumps last day in office, secretary of state Mike Pompeo released a press statement [vi] declaring that through exhaustive documentation it is confirmed that China is responsible for committing genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uighur and other members of the ethnic and religious minority group in Xinjiang.

He stated that the crimes are ongoing and include: the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than one million civilians, forced sterilization, torture, forced labour, and imposition of draconian restriction on freedom of religion, expression, and movement. In the light of his statement President Joe Biden also used the term, 'genocide' to refer to China's abuse and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken also affirmed Pompeo’s declaration.

As a result, the U.S. has imposed visa restrictions, blacklisted more than two dozen Chinese companies and agencies linked to abuse in the region and banned cotton and tomato imports. European Union has asked China to respect religious freedom and change its policies. As a response to this, on December 7, 2021, European Union passed a European Magnitsky act [vii] which established global human rights sanctions regime that allows to freeze assists, ban entry, prohibit dealings with human rights abusers.

A U.K. based unofficial independent tribunal comprising of lawyers, academics and businesspeople alleges that forced birth control to reduced population amounts to genocide. Sir Geoffrey Nice, head of the Uighur tribunal and prominent human rights lawyer said China's treatment of the Uighur amounted under the Geneva convention to an intent to destroy all or part of a group physically or biologically. [viii]

Though the tribunal does not hold any government backing and power to sanction or punish but aims to help to galvanize other fearful governments to ask the international court to investigate the allegations. A few months later, prime minister, Boris Johnson’s government decided not to term the crime in Xinjian as genocide rather called it "industrial scale" human rights abuse. Minsters say that any decision declaring a genocide is up to the courts. [[ix]]

Various countries like Netherlands and Canada and human rights groups accused China of committing cultural genocide as per the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention). Their allegations are based on various evidence and testaments of the former camp detainees.

China's Stance On These Allegations

China vehemently denies the accusations of committing any human rights violation and abuse. It is unwilling to conduct any investigation or allow any independent international monitors to do so. In the beginning, China denied the existence of any camp and stated that they haven’t heard of such situation.

But amidst relentless media coverage of the existence of the camps and ill-treatment of the detainees, China shifted its strategy and called those camps 'vocational educational camps' and 'training program camps'. It states that these camps were necessary and had two main purposes: teach Mandarina, Chinese law, vocational skills and prevent the citizen from becoming influenced by extremist ideas. The Chinese government stated that these camps played an important role in preventing terrorist attacks.

Since 2016 after the detention of the Uighurs, there was no terrorist activities or any other violent act. The Chinese government claims actions and said their actions were within the Chinese law and were instruments to bring stability to the region. They state that these camps are instruments to eradicate poverty as they would promote upward economic mobility for the impoverished ethnic groups. Governor of Xinjian, Shohrat Zakir stated that all detainees have been "graduated" and only people who are still there were voluntarily present.

He mentioned no atrocities of any kind were inflicted on people rather they were provided with meals, accommodations, and other necessary things for their well-being. Chinese government and media labelled western criticism of various governments as conspiracy and misinformation. They called it propaganda to tarnish the image of China. They dismissed the claims of mass sterilisation and called it a means to promote reproductive health and gender equality.

Chinese embassy took to social media to laud how women of the mostly Uighur community were no longer 'baby-making machines'. China's embassy promoted a study in state-run media that said that the birth rate declined in 2018 among Uighur women as they increasingly accepted contraceptive measures due to the "eradication of religious extremism." [x] China also claimed the import ban imposed on them by the US and Europe, were built on fabrications and not facts.

China's Obligation Under International Law

Even though religious freedom is guaranteed under article 36 of the Chinese constitution[xi], it is impossible for the Uighur Muslims to seek constitutional relief under the authoritarian regime of the Chinese Communist Party. In such a scenario, international law seems to be the only recourse available to the Uighur Muslims. For a legally cognizable claim of genocide, there must exist not only a genocidal act but also genocidal intent.

It may be difficult to prove genocidal intent in the Xinjian context, given the high bar that the international tribunal has articulated for such findings. Genocidal intent is the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such. China is a party to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide [xii]. Under article 1 of the convention, state parties to the convention are required to punish and prevent genocide under international law.

The Chinese government have arguably committed two of the five genocidal acts: the government has caused "serious bodily or mental harm to the members of the group" in violation of Article II(b) and "imposed measure intended to prevent births within the group" in violation of Article II(d).

Under the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), China can be held liable for its treatment of Uighur Muslims as per article 6 and article 7. Article 7(1) of the Rome statute provides a list of 11 acts, any of which may constitute crimes against humanity "when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against
any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack". Acts listed in article 7(1) of the Rome Statute that are can be applicable are: [xiii]
  1. *
  2. *
  3. Enslavement
    There is evidence of satellite imagery, personal accounts and official documents indicating that XUAR authorities were systematically forcing Uighur and other ethnic minorities to engage in forced labour in XUAR as well as other parts of China.
  4. *
  5. Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law
    Security personnel have carried out the arbitrary, prolonged detention of the Uighurs in mass internment camps in the XUAR since around April 2017, authorities have also increasingly sentenced ethnic minority individuals to lengthy prions terms for absurd political reasons.
  6. Torture
    Security personnel in mass internment camps in the XUAR subjected detainees to widespread torture, including electric shocks and shackling people in uncomfortable positions.
  7. *
  8. Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, culture, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3 or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the court.

Security personnel have detained up to 1.8 million Uighurs and other ethnic minority people, enforced harsh, widespread restrictions on peaceful Islamic practices of XUAR residents to intense surveillance, checkpoints, intimidation, and involuntary biometric data collection. in addition, authorities in the XUAR have reportedly placed children of both mass internment camp detainees and individual forced to labor into orphanages, welfare center, often without consent, raising concerns of forcible assimilation.

Apart from the Genocide Convention, China is also a state party to the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESR). Article 20 and article 27 of the ICCPR provided safeguards against religious discrimination. similarly, article 13(3) of the ICESR provides for the parent's rights to educate their children in accordance with their religious belief.

Involvement Of International Criminal Court (ICC)
In an effort to seek justice for the Uighur Muslim community, two Uighur activist groups are known as the East Turkistan Government in Exile and East Turkistan National Awakening Movement have filed a complaint against the People's Republic of China before the International Criminal Court.

The complaint was filed against the top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party officials on the ground that China’s detention of Uighur Muslims amounts to genocide and crimes against humanity. The Uighur exiles are being represented by a group of leading international lawyers.

On December 14, 2020, the Office of the Prosecutors (OTP) to the International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmed that it cannot take any further cases of Uighurs. According to article 13, Rome Statute is limited to those states that are a party to it or have accepted that state's jurisdiction in accordance with paragraph 3 of article 12. As China is not a party to the Rome Statute, this provision safeguards it against being brought before the International Criminal Court.

Another way ICC can intervene is through article 13(2) which provides ICC can exercise jurisdiction over the crimes if UNSC refers the same to prosecutors under chapter VII of the United Nations charter. However, this seems unlikely as China is a permanent UNSC member that possesses veto power and therefore won’t allow prosecution against itself. This doesn’t mean ICC cannot exercise jurisdiction on alleged crimes at all. ICC can take an indirect approach and as per the proposal of the International Law Community, ICC can explore the possibility of using the precedent set by ICC in the Myanmar case over Rohingya Genocide.

According to article 12(2)A of the statute, if at least one element of a crime within the jurisdiction of the court or part of such crime is committed on the territory of a state to the statute, then ICC may assert its jurisdiction. Similarly, in the case of Uighur, the legal team can argue that the part of the criminal conduct occurred in Tajikistan and Cambodia, two nations that accept the jurisdiction of ICC, and this could open the door for the ICC to engage in the situation.

Conclusion
Though the bar for proving genocide is very high and China has consistently showed its aversion to international adjudication and refused to abide by international law. Owing to its economic, political, and diplomatic prowess, it has also been able to garner the support of several countries across the world.

Therefore, it is upon the court to establish that acts were committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national ethical, racial, or religious group. It is the international law that would decide whether these atrocities constitute genocide or not.

If the ICC decides to prosecute People's Republic of China for its crimes, then it will prove to be a turning point for the Uighur justice movement.

References:
  1. Regencia, Ted. What you should know about China's minority Uighurs. 14 July 2021. Al Jazeera. February 2022
  2. Matthew Hill, David Campanale and Joel Gunter. “'Their Goal Is to Destroy Everyone': Uighur Camp Detainees Allege Systematic Rape.” BBC News, BBC, 2 Feb. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55794071.
  3. Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots. Human Rights Watch, 20 Apr. 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/19/break-their-lineage-break-their-roots/chinas-crimes-against-humanity-targeting.
  4. Icij, et al. “Read the China Cables Documents.” ICIJ, 24 Nov. 2019, https://www.icij.org/investigations/china-cables/read-the-china-cables-documents/.
  5. Home - Uyghur Human Rights Project. https://www.docs.uhrp.org/pdf/UHRP_QaraqashDocument.pdf.
  6. Determination of the Secretary of State on Atrocities in Xinjiang, 19 Jan. 2019, https://2017-2021.state.gov/determination-of-the-secretary-of-state-on-atrocities-in-xinjiang/index.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2022.
  7. Chemali, Hagar Hajjar. The European magnitsky law-a milestone with a lot of potential. 10 December 2020. February 2022.
  8. Uyghurs Subjected to Genocide by China, Unofficial UK Tribunal Finds. The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Dec. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/09/uyghurs-subjected-to-genocide-by-china-unofficial-uk-tribunal-finds.
  9. Person. “UK Parliament Declares Genocide in China's Xinjiang; Beijing Condemns Move.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 22 Apr. 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/uk-parliament-declares-genocide-chinas-xinjiang-raises-pressure-johnson-2021-04-22/
  10. US Voices Disgust at China Boast of Uighur Population Control. Arab News, Arabnews, 8 Jan. 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1789511/world.
  11. The Constitution Law of People's Republic of China - UNESCO.
    http://www.unesco.org/education/edurights/media/docs/39f675948ad50e4af1f11188daea47d593e7f694.pdf
  12. Genocide Convention: International Criminal Court Forum. The International Criminal Court Forum, https://iccforum.com/genocide-convention
  13. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Https://Www.icc-Cpi.int/Resource-Library/Documents/Rs-Eng.pdf Congress.

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