After the UN’s allegations of crimes against humanity, the world must mobilise on China’s actions in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

In April 2020, CSW published a guest blog written by an expert on Uyghur culture who outlined the pervasive human rights crisis in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Over two years later, the situation remains unchanged, and as we hear from the same expert, the need for international action grows more pressing with every passing day.

“Kamil is a broken young man. Wrenched from his home at dead of night five years ago, hooded, shackled and shoved into the back of a police van, he disappeared. Two years ago, he re-emerged. Via friends of friends we heard with immense relief that he was alive, but the message we received was that he feared nothing anymore, such had been the terror he had faced daily during his incarceration. Yes he was alive, but barely.

More than two years have passed since my last blog, and there are hundreds of thousands of Kamils. Some have been ‘released’ to forced labour, many making cheap clothing for Western brands; others have been sentenced for spurious crimes in secret courts to draconian prison terms; others are still unaccounted for, and many have died.

The Chinese government has been working overtime garnering support around the world to justify incarcerating up to three million Uyghur and Turkic minority citizens from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, its North Westernmost province, in a network of at least 380 razor-wire clad and watchtower-surrounded so-called ‘Vocational Training Schools’.

Justifying the clampdowns and extra-legal detentions under the banner of its ‘War on Terror’, cash-strapped, indebted, and often fellow Islamic nations are all too happy to sign on the Chinese Communist Party’s dotted line in support of Beijing’s efforts to rein in dissent at home. China’s state mouthpiece, the Global Times, has boasted the backing of 100 countries around the world for its efforts.

The province itself has become nothing less than an open air prison. Those not corralled into the camps live life on tenterhooks. They are mercilessly surveilled by the world’s most intrusive and far-reaching system of cameras with facial recognition, mood monitoring capabilities, and racial and gait detection. Compulsory apps on phones monitor calls, texts and every download. Local police know where you are and who you are with every minute of every day. To not carry a phone, or turn it off or restore it to factory settings is enough to set alarm bells ringing and provoke immediate arrest.

Uyghurs in the diaspora have been cut off from relatives and their homeland since 2016. Communities of exiles, most of whom have no idea of the fate of their loved ones, crushed by an interminable grief, are also pursued in their new homes by the Chinese state, relentless in its pursuit of those who dare to speak out. Many are tricked into returning, blackmailed into ‘doing the right thing’ for their ageing parents, only to face years in prison on their arrival for ‘betraying’ the motherland.

Much of the world has been silent or powerless in the face of the superpower’s growing confidence on the world stage. Whereas Beijing used to care about its reputation, these days it professes high dudgeon over criticism, but ploughs ahead regardless. China’s power of veto at the UN has largely muzzled criticism from Member States, and individual countries have been left to impose their own sanctions against Xinjiang officials complicit in the atrocities.

The failure of international bodies to hear the Uyghur case saw an independent tribunal set up in London in 2021 to examine the evidence. Its damning judgement exposed crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang, following orders from the top to ‘break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.’ Arbitrary detention, organ harvesting, torture, sexual violence, murder, and forced labour were some of the crimes uncovered. Mass compulsory sterilisation, abduction of children, religious oppression, cultural desecration, and linguicide added weight to the unequivocal verdict, backed up by former camp detainees who have witnessed the abuses first hand.

In the face of international legal inertia, democratic governments around the world, politicians, human rights groups, and Uyghur activists have fought back. Stepping up with debates in parliaments, laws to prevent trade with states pedalling forced labour, sanctions against complicit individuals, and more specifically with the United States’ recent Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act, presuming the taint of forced labour in all imports from Xinjiang unless proven otherwise.

A UN report, three years in the making and strongly opposed by China finally saw the light of day at the end of last month, minutes before the much-criticised UN Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s departure from office. Beijing’s ferocious opposition to the report failed to prevent publication and its damning, albeit reluctant verdict was that crimes against humanity ‘may have been’ committed by China in Xinjiang.

The report, the first time the UN has nailed its colours to the mast over the issue, means nothing if the world fails to mobilise in the face of the ‘serious human rights violations’ it has uncovered. Rights groups are pressing for a full debate in the current UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, but despite being the elephant in the room at the session, the scandal is glaring in its absence on the packed agenda.

Despite the report itself calling for further investigations into the human rights abuses, the Council president has continued to sidestep calls for a special session on China. Suspicions that Beijing continues to flex its muscles at the highest levels to gag opposition are worrying and bode ill for attempts to get justice for the 12 million or so Uyghurs held to ransom in their own homeland.”