By: Jinen Lakdawala and Khushi Wazalwar, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law
Edited by The Editorial Board of SAIL.
Uyghurs are an ethnic minority group, comprising primarily Muslims living in the Xinjiang province of China. Uyghurs are Turkic speaking people, and are relatively closer- culturally and ethnically, to the Central Asian nations. They are one of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities.
Over 11 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from a decade’s long crackdown by Chinese authorities.Some eight hundred thousand to two million Uyghurs along with other Muslims including Kazakhs and Uzbeks have been detained by the Chinese authorities since April 2017.
This has prompted several countries including the US, Canada and Netherlands have accused China of perpetrating genocide. Defined by International Convention as the ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in a part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Australian strategic Policy institute have credible reports and evidence of China holding up millions of people in ‘counter extremism’ and having over 380 “re-education camps” in Xinjiang.
Although, China and the Chinese officials counter the claim of the international community positing that the Chinese government is concerned that Uyghurs hold extremists and separatist ideas and they view the camps as a way of eliminating threats to China’s territorial integrity, government and population.
China has made a concerted effort to dilute and dissolve all traces of Uyghur culture through suppression of religious freedoms and forced assimilation. They are restricted from practising their religion even outside of the camps. Fasting during Ramadan, wearing head and face-coverings, Muslim rituals and giving children Muslims names is prohibited. They are also forced to practice things their religion doesn’t support, such as eating pork and drinking alcohol.
Furthermore, there have been reports of forcibly mass sterilization of Uyghur women to suppress the population, separating children from their families, and attempting to break the cultural traditions of the group.
Articles 1, 2, and 15 of the ICESCR; Articles 2 and 5 of the ICERD; and Articles 18-20 of the UDHR all protect the right to religious, cultural, and social self-determination as fundamental freedoms. The Chinese constitution also (rather ambiguously) guarantees religious freedoms: According to Article 36, “no state organ, public organization, or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion.” However, the same section cautions that the state will only protect “normal” religious activities that do not “disrupt public order, impair citizens’ health, or interfere with the state’s educational system.”
Under China’s counterterrorism policies, Uyghurs’ freedom of movement, particularly attempts to leave the country, is officially curtailed. This violates Article 5 of the ICERD, which lists freedom of movement — as well as the right to leave and return to one’s home country — as enforceable civil rights. The same guarantees are provided by Article 13 of the UDHR.
The camps’ conditions are murky due to the constant monitoring of Uighurs’ communication and movement. However, there have been numerous credible reports of severe physical and mental abuse that meet the definition of torture under international human rights law.
The detainees are tortured during interrogation, shackled and electrocuted. They are brainwashed, drugged and deprived of food and sleep in order to disturb their physical and mental health. Women are sexually humiliated and ill-treated
Aside from the CAT, these abuses appear to violate Article 2 of the Genocide Convention by “causing serious bodily or mental harm” to targeted Uighur victims. The violations also violate Article 5 of the ICERD and the UDHR, which both guarantee freedom from torture and punishment regardless of race, gender, religion, or other status.
China is not a party to any treaties against forced labour promulgated by the International Labour Organization. However, Article 23 of the UDHR guarantees basic protections against forced labour, and Article 4 of China’s constitution pledges to protect minorities.
The majority of those detained in the camps have never been charged with a crime and have no legal recourse to challenge their detention. According to media reports, the detainees were targeted for a variety of reasons, including travelling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending mosque services; having more than three children; and sending texts containing Quranic verses. Human rights groups claim that for many Uyghurs, the only crime is being Muslim and that they have been labelled as extremists simply for practicing their religion.
INTERNATIONAL LAWS APPLIED
China is a signatory to multiple international conventions which are ratified for the sole purpose of respecting basic human rights and labour laws. Thus, it becomes a sine qua non on part of China to respect the treaties they have been a signatory to and not treat the Uyghur population inhumanely. China being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) becomes obligatory on them to not discriminate against the minority Uyghur population. Article 23 of the convention explicitly states the signatories need to give free choice of employment to the people. It further continues saying that favourable remuneration needs to be given to the workers for their service/work rendered which would uphold the existence of Human Dignity. The mentioned Article corresponds with Articles 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which China is Signatory. The said Article further elaborates on the right to work and its essential corollary of providing a just and favorable working condition. Therefore, it is binding on part of China to respect the conventions signed and stop the atrocities on the innocent Uyghur population and treat them on par with the other Chinese people by providing their basic rights and respecting that they belong to a minority community. This also corresponds with Article 18 of the UDHR convention which states that people have the right to profess any religion, thought and conscience and it would be wrong on part of the state to discriminate against people on basis of the said criterion.
China is also a signatory and a founding member of the International Labor Organization (ILO). The basic structure of the convention is to not discriminate between labourers and discouraging forced labour, this has been ratified in Article 1 of the said convention. Article 2 further elaborates that penalties could be imposed if the parties in any way violate Article 1 of the said convention.
The ILO can take immediate action against China because the consensus of the signatories is not required, the governments do not have the voting consensus. The only consent required is of trade union and employer association union. To continue China has got a flexible approach towards international policies and it has not ratified the forced labour convention under the International labour organization. However, China is a signatory to the ILO convention 111 which bars discrimination in employment. This permits ILO to conduct a detailed review of the labour violation against the Uyghur community, this has been enshrined under Article 26 of the convention which details the complaints of non-observance.
RELATIONS WITH TURKEY
Turkey had always been a haven for the Turkic speaking Uyghur minority ever since the communist party took control over Xinjiang from the year 1949. The Turkish president Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan used to send shockwaves in China by openly criticising the incidents as genocidal in nature. However, there has been a downturn in the approach of Turkey. In 2016 Turkey arrested and deported the Uyghur minority leader Abdulkadir Yapcan who had been living in the country since 2001. In the following year, Turkey signed an agreement with China allowing extradition even if the offence is illegal in one of the countries. Since 2019 Turkey have arrested and deported a lot of Uyghur immigrants. To continue, the Turkish president’s statement has also turned diplomatically bland and have been more in favour of China.
The change of events could be explained because Turkey is facing an acute economic crisis. Ankara is counting on Beijing to patch things up and hoping on getting financial aid to get out of the situation. The Turkish Libra plunged 40% in 2018 and the situation further worsened due to the covid pandemic because there has been a dip in tourism which is one of the incomes Turkey relies on. The fast-growing Turkish market which once lured investors from various countries is now staying away from the country. The relations between China and Turkey have been significantly improved between 2016-2020. Till 2019 China has made an investment worth $3 billion in Turkey. There have been multiple investments made by China in the fields of defense, nuclear energy, etc. All in all, China is a big cash cow for Turkey.
The acts done by Turkey are morally wrong keeping in mind the international humanitarian laws. Turkey also is a signatory to the UDHR Convention that needs to follow a principle of non-refoulment which states that Turkey needs to provide refuge to the Uyghur community which escaped China due to the fear of being persecuted because of their race.
RELATIONS WITH AFGHANISTAN
In the recent wake of events, the Taliban originally established as a socio-cultural group have taken over Afghanistan in a coup followed by evasion of the US and NATO troops present in the country. Taliban known for practicing rigorous Islamic laws could invade China and spread terror in retaliation to the atrocities done on the minority Uyghur community. This could threaten China’s internal security and blow the political stability in the country. In order to avoid any such events, China has offered improving ties with the Taliban by pumping in resources in the form of economic aid. Also, it has offered infrastructural ties in form of extending the Belt and Road initiative which would be beneficial to the economies of both countries.
The Taliban needs to closely administer the situation and act on it. Taliban could offer diplomatic talks about the atrocities done on the minority community in China. This could improve the Taliban-China relations as well as the situation of helpless Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Province.
CHINA’S POINT OF VIEW
The Government officials initially denied the camps’ existence. Beginning in October 2018, officials began referring to the centers as centers of vocational training. And were further officially renamed in March 2019 to “vocational training centers.” China denies all claims of human rights violations in Xinjiang. It announced in 2019 that it had released all inmates from its “re-education” camp system. China claims that the crackdown in Xinjiang is necessary to prevent terrorism and root out Islamist extremism and that the camps are an effective tool for re-educating inmates in the country’s anti-terrorism efforts.
It is held that Uyghur militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage, and civil unrest, but it is accused of exaggerating the threat to justify Uyghur repression.
China has dismissed as “baseless” claims that it is attempting to reduce the Uyghur population through mass sterilisation, and claims of forced labour are “completely fabricated.”
In the light of these events, the International Criminal Court (ICC) should Step in and prosecute the People’s Republic of China. This would be a turning point for the Uyghur Justice movement. However, China has consistently shown its aversions to international law and adjudications. In this scenario, the ICC needs to implement sanctions for China’s non-compliance with international laws.
Furthermore, the International Community needs to intervene in the issue and make China realize the humanitarian treaties they are a part of. In the event of non-compliance, there can be sanctions imposed on China by major superpowers who are against these atrocities like the European Union and the United States of America. Sanctions by them in form of taxes and embargos would be detrimental to the Chinese economy. This would lead to a downward turn in the annual GDP of the country which would hamper its standing in the international community.