Treatment of Uighur Muslims in China: How can the world answer?
15th March 2019
International crimes and human rights abuses, particularly when targeted against one group of people, are of global significance and notice. Atrocities such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and more recently, the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, has caused pain that continues to ripple through generations. But they also highlighted the necessity of international prevention when such horrors take place. Often, ‘the world has a cruel habit of ignoring humanitarian disasters until it’s too late’. This was clearly shown during the Rwandan genocide, where the lack of adequate international intervention cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives. At the moment, a significant number of Uighur Muslims are experiencing similar horrors, and many are crying out for help. Has the world learnt from its mistakes? Will it ensure that the same mistakes are not made again with regards to the Uighurs?
What is being alleged?
The Uighur Muslims are an ethnic minority group based primarily in Xinjiang, an autonomous region of China. Hundreds of thousands, possibly up to a million, Uighur Muslims have been detained in concentration camps and detention centres for their “re-education”, where they have reportedly been forced to renounce their Islamic beliefs and ethnic identity. Reports of life inside the camps and detention centres have reported unhealthy living conditions and regular violence. They are also being indoctrinated to praise the ruling Communist Party. When they resist the measures imposed against them, they are punished; deprived of food or subjected to severe beatings and dehumanising treatment. Others have been thrown in prison or have mysteriously “disappeared”, their deaths later being reported by family members. For the Uighurs who remain in Xinjiang, there is a constant sense of fear and apprehension at the possibility of being detained. Simple pleasures like reading a book have become an undesirable activity, as it invites unwanted attention from the Chinese police. One individual was sent to jail for owning the “wrong” books. In some cases, Uighur women have been forced to marry non-Muslim men in an effort to further ‘dilute’ the Uighur Muslim population.
The Uighurs are being targeted and victimised for something they cannot change, and should not have to change. China has defended its actions as being necessary to fight Islamic extremism and terrorism, although the state has denied the existence of any internment camps. Instead, China maintains that training centres have been set up for the purpose of educating the Uighurs. The Chinese state media have even released propaganda videos, showing Uighurs enjoying these so-called “education centres”; somewhat echoing the Nazi propaganda film falsely depicting concentration camps as paradise.
Based on reports by journalists and eyewitness accounts, many human rights abuses are taking place. As such, it must be considered what the legal implications of China’s actions might be.
A legal basis for action?
The basis of human rights protection in China begins with its obligations under international law. In 1948, the United Nations (of which China is a member) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which specified the fundamental rights and freedoms all individuals are entitled to. China’s alleged treatment of the Uighur Muslims violates numerous Articles of the UDHR. The detainment and mysterious deaths are depriving the Uighurs of their right to life and liberty under Article 3. Being imprisoned arbitrarily without trial is a clear violation of Article 9. The torture and inhuman treatment within the camps breaches Article 5. Being violently separated from their families (Article 12), forced to renounce their religion (Article 18), and brainwashed to change their political thinking infringes the freedom of opinion and expression under Article 19.
However, the UDHR is not legally binding on UN member states. To address this, two international treaties were established: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Alongside the UDHR, the Conventions constitute the ‘International Bill of Human Rights’; representing a dynamic progression in international human rights law. The Conventions not only reiterated the rights and freedoms enshrined in the UDHR, but also developed them. States which have ratified the treaties are bound; assuming obligations and duties under international law to respect the human rights contained within them. The obligations placed upon states are both positive, requiring states to actively promote human rights, and negative, ensuring that states refrain from interfering with the enjoyment of rights.
Regarding the maltreatment of the Uighur Muslims, how is China getting away with the alleged human rights abuses, when the state has legal obligations under international law to refrain from such abuses? It could possibly be because China has yet to ratify the ICCPR. Additionally, China is known for the tight restrictions it places on its citizens. From the former one-child policy and the censorship of the media, to imprisoning activists exercising their freedom of expression. Notably, in February 2013, numerous journalists, lawyers and scholars in China signed a petition urging the government to ratify the treaty. Ironically, many of them ended up being arrested for exercising the same freedoms they were campaigning for. Even if China were to ratify the ICCPR, this would not necessarily make any difference to the human rights protection in the country. In reality, many states which have ratified both the international Conventions, such as Syria and Venezuela, violate numerous human rights.
Whilst, the oppression in China has not gone unnoticed by the world, not much has been done to address it. Both the US and the UK have recognised that the situation is a cause for concern, but only Turkey has openly condemned China’s actions and urged the government to close the camps. Given the internationally respected principle of state sovereignty, and the economic and strategic ties China has with many countries, any real action against the state is unlikely.
The alleged situation in China is just one example amongst many of international concern. In Venezuela, the Presidential dispute has had a profoundly negative impact on Venezuelan citizens. Significant inflation has led to an economic crisis, with many struggling to afford basic items such as food, toiletries and medicine, yet the President has refused humanitarian aid. In Iran, the ill-treatment of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer and activist, and the severity of her sentence has been questioned internationally. And closer to home, the UK has recently been criticised for separating the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, colonising and forcibly removing its citizens. These examples elucidate the wider issue of the regulation of State actions. How can the rest of the world control the actions of one state?
As it stands, life for the Uighur Muslims is incredibly bleak. What makes the situation worse is the scant coverage in the media of their plight, allowing many in the world to remain oblivious. To prevent history from repeating itself, it’s becoming clear that if China is not willing to protect the human rights of its citizens, the onus is on the world to do so.
Written by Hayley Morgan, a Level 6 LLB student studying International Criminal Law, Human Rights and Public International Law.
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