In August of 2018, a panel of members of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated that they had received credible reports of the extrajudicial mass detentions of around one million ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim ethnic minorities in China. These detentions of Muslim ethnic minorities are happening in the northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang under Chinese authority and in violation of international human rights law. The detained people are being kept in secret internment camps that have been described as “no rights zones.”
Sources, including activists from the Chinese Human Rights Defenders and escapees, allege that the attempted religious and political “reeducation” practices include nationalist propaganda, forced feeding of pork and alcohol, physical abuse, and even torture. Uyghur students returning to China from abroad have also been detained, with some reportedly dying in custody. In China, officials are representing Muslim ethnic minority practices as a mental illness that needs to be cured at all costs. China’s persecution of this minority group, based solely on ethno-religious identity, is part of its “strike hard” campaign. This campaign was started in response to fears of extremism and terrorism after riots occurred in the region in 2009. China denies any mistreatment and insists the detention centers are part of a vocational and educational training program.
China has a long history of forcing minority societies under its control to conform to Han Chinese cultural norms. This process of sinicisation has its roots in Chinese imperialism and has been employed across Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. It includes enforcing a common dress code, religion, culture, political belief, and language across diverse societies in order to cultivate a sense of national unity. Currently, this practice is being bolstered by worldwide fears over so called “Islamic extremism.” While denying reports of abuse, Li Xiaojun, the director for publicity at the Bureau of Human Rights Affairs of the State Council Information Office stated that this practice may not be ideal but is necessary to deal with religious extremism.
The right to practice one’s religion without government persecution is one of the fundamental tenants of human rights law, but China’s constitutional protection of this right is lacking. China only protects the right to worship in one of five officially sanctioned religious organizations. While the religious freedom of some Muslims is ostensibly protected by the Islamic Association of China, Uyghur Muslims are notably absent from this list and have historically faced harassment and abuse because of their ethno-religious background, but never on this scale. Article 37 of China’s Constitution states that all arrests must be approved by either the procuratorate, the state prosecution, or the courts. It also outlaws discrimination and oppression based on ethnicity and religion. Both of these protections are being violated.
China’s actions present clear violations of basic human rights, including “protections on freedom of expression, religion, family life, privacy, and to movement as well as from being arbitrarily arrested, detained, and subjected to torture and ill-treatment.” They also violate international protections against racial and ethnic discrimination and the right to an adequate avenue for legal redress. These protections are contained in Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as Article 2 of the International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment —both of which China has ratified. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination requires States to work to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination and to guarantee equality before the law regardless of race, color, or national or ethnic origin. China’s actions also violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Article 2 prohibiting religious and ethnic persecution and Article 5 prohibiting torture. Lastly, China’s practice of child separation violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that no child should be subjected to “arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home, or correspondence.” The enforcement mechanisms of these instruments have not been triggered and no official reviews have been conducted, but the case should be brought to the UN Human Rights Council, especially at China’s Universal Periodic Review.
Collective international action is required to combat China’s mass detention and abuse of Muslim ethnic minority citizens. The statements made during the UN panel discussion serve as an encouraging call to action but an official statement on behalf of the UN is still needed. Due to the secretive nature of the Chinese government in enacting this program, more fact-finding will likely be necessary before international bodies take decisive action. In the absence of any official fact-finding by international bodies, individual journalists and activists have been racing to collect data online before it can be scrubbed by China’s government.