Far-fetched and fantastical? One aspect of Squid Game could be all too real

Netflix’s hit dystopian drama – with deadly playground games, anonymous masked henchmen and a giant murderous doll – is far-fetched to say the least. And yet, arguably, one storyline underplays the grim reality.

In just four weeks, Squid Game, the Korean production where contestants play children’s games and the losing players are killed, became Netflix’s most popular series ever and number one in 90 countries.

In one storyline, guards take the bodies of losing contestants and operate on them, removing vital organs while the subjects are still alive. These organs are then rushed to be sold to Chinese traders.

A grim reality

Astonishingly, this black market story has some basis in reality. Illegal organ trading has become a widespread and lucrative business for illegal groups around the world, with one estimate suggesting that 10,000 kidneys alone are traded on the black market worldwide annually – more than one every hour.

In most countries, including the UK, criminal gangs bear primary responsibility for this sinister and sadistic trade. In 2018, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that they had collected information on approximately 700 victims of trafficking in persons for removal of organs detected in 25 countries over 13 years. This is likely a conservative estimate.

For example, a few years ago people smugglers in Egypt would often target refugees and asylum seekers from countries like Eritrea and Sudan, telling them that they could raise money to pay for sea crossings into Europe by selling their organs. In other cases groups even abducted refugees to extort exorbitant ransom payments from their families and friends.  When payments were not forthcoming, vital organs were forcefully harvested in unhygienic conditions, generally resulting in the death of the person concerned.

China is also home to this sinister trade, but recent years have also seen allegations emerge which suggest it is home to another form of illegal organ harvesting – one sanctioned and organised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself.

Organ harvesting on an industrial scale?

In particular, activists allege that the CCP is responsible for industrial level organ harvesting sometimes specifically targeted at members of ethnic and religious minorities and prisoners of conscience. CSW has not been able to independently verify these allegations, but the accusations certainly offer cause for concern in light of the CCP’s well-documented and egregious human rights violations.

For example, a series of reports by human rights lawyer David Matas, former Canadian cabinet minister David Kilgour and China analyst Ethan Gutmann, found evidence to suggest that Falun Gong practitioners – a spiritual movement which has been banned in China since 1999 – had been particularly and unwillingly targeted, finding that “the source of 41,500 [organ] transplants for the six-year period 2000 to 2005 is unexplained.”

In 2019 an independent people’s tribunal into forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience in China chaired by barrister and former judge Sir Geoffrey Nice QC also raised concern that forced organ harvesting may now be taking place amid the ongoing human rights crisis in the Uyghur region.  

Forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale and that Falun Gong practitioners have been one – and probably the main – source of organ supply. The concerted persecution and medical testing of the Uyghurs is more recent and it may be that evidence of forced organ harvesting of this group may emerge in due course. The Tribunal has had no evidence that the significant infrastructure associated with China’s transplantation industry has been dismantled and absent a satisfactory explanation as to the source of readily available organs concludes that forced organ harvesting continues till today. The Tribunal further concluded that crimes against humanity against the Falun Gong and Uyghurs have been proved beyond reasonable doubt.”

Short form conclusion of the China Tribunal’s judgement

A call to action

The organ harvesting storyline is not one of the most dominant features of Squid Game, but it does illustrate that even the most far-fetched and horrifying stories can often have some basis in reality.

The programme’s themes of social injustice and discrimination have clearly struck a chord with audiences around the world, and our hope and prayer at CSW is that anyone stirred by the unspeakable horrors depicted in the show would be moved to stand up, speak out and challenge the equally grave atrocities taking place in our world today.

By CSW’s Head of Campaigns Dave Mance

Featured Image: Screenshot from Squid Game/Netflix


On freedom of religion or belief, the UK government needs to turn its rhetoric to reality

“The fact is that we simply can’t afford to be religiously illiterate in today’s world. To be religiously illiterate in today’s world is simply to fail to understand how and why others act as they do.” – These are the words of Bishop Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, speaking at the deferred 175th anniversary celebration of The National Club earlier this month.

Bishop Mounstephen has been a friend of mine, and of CSW, for a number of years now, so it will come as little surprise that we fully support his assertion. As the bishop outlined so eloquently in his speech, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), cannot be seen as a “side-bar” or “special interest” issue. In fact, it is a fundamental human right, the abuse of which so often leads to wider human rights violations as it intersects with issues such as poverty, race and gender.

Fortunately, the UK government appears to agree. Last year, upon the appointment of Fiona Bruce MP as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for FoRB, Boris Johnson said: “The UK is absolutely committed to protecting the inalienable right to freedom of religion and belief, at home and around the world.”

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Sudan’s military coup: lessons from Egypt and the wider region

In February 2021, CSW warned that slow progress in ushering a new era for Sudan risked derailing the inclusive national vision that had united so many of its citizens in protest, and which led to the fall of the al-Bashir regime and the creation of a transitional government. Our blog post pointed to the need to learn from neighbouring Egypt’s experiences.

On 25 October 2021, the transitional council was overthrown, and the military seized power in a coup. Once again there are lessons to be drawn from Egypt, and the wider region, in understanding the challenges to democracy in Sudan today.

Both Sudan and Egypt have a complicated history of the involvement of the military in politics. One of the key differences in the two nations’ relationship with the military, however, is one of ideology.

In the immediate post-Mubarak era, the military effectively paved the way for a Muslim Brotherhood electoral victory.  However, when the army intervened in political affairs for the second time, it set out to control the excesses of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, positioning itself as the guardian of the Revolution and assisting in the overthrow of the government following mass protests.  

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Long Read: Removing the Obstacles to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Africa

Religion-related tensions continue to arise in many African countries. They come in varying forms and degrees of intensity, and can be intra-religious or occur between religious communities.

Religion is either instrumentalised as a rallying point or is the raison d’étre of armed non state actors seeking to enforce an extremist interpretation of their creed or to gain material advantage. It is used by individuals or political parties as a bridge to power and rallying point.  In addition, some governments view religion, or certain religious or non-religious groups, as threats, exercising control through excessive registration requirements or more forcible means. 

Every country on the African continent is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with its expanded articulation of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), and to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), where the right to change or refuse one’s religion or belief as an act of conscience can be inferred from Article 8. However, in parts of the continent, human rights in general, and FoRB in particular, are challenged by arguments about cultural relativism and frequent but erroneous assertions that they are a Western construct. 

Thus, despite being parties to international and regional treaties, many African countries either do not give legal effect to them, or create exemptions for their implementation. This has further exacerbated their already poor profile on human rights protection.

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Sudan City View

Beyond the headlines: Freedom of religion or belief and women’s rights in Sudan

The political shifts in Sudan from the authoritarian rule of Omar al Bashir to the transitional government (a mix of civilians and the military), has garnered many positive headlines. The welcome changes and relief that there is a reservoir of political will to address the root causes of the country’s conflicts have indeed been positive.

In particular, the pledges of reform, the recent announcement that the government will accede to the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the changing of some public order laws that infringed on the rights of women, especially women from marginalized communities, as well as the removal of apostasy have been warmly received.

However, beneath the headlines are simmering social hostilities which have already generated a series of violations that have not been sufficiently investigated or addressed. These violations threaten to undermine the positive steps taken so far, and both the transitional government and supporters of this new political arrangement in the international community need to note and address them.

Continue reading “Beyond the headlines: Freedom of religion or belief and women’s rights in Sudan”