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International relations

China committing 'crimes against humanity' in Xinjiang: report

Human Rights Watch and Stanford find grave abuses but no evidence of genocide

A facility officially known as a vocational skills education center in Xinjiang in 2018. In recent days, Chinese authorities have criticized allegations of abuses in the region.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- China is committing "crimes against humanity" on Uyghur and other ethnic Turkic Muslim populations in Xinjiang but there is not enough evidence to call it genocide, according to a report by Human Rights Watch and Stanford University's International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic released on Monday.

The 53-page report said Beijing's actions against Turkic Muslims in the country's northwestern Xinjiang region are "among the gravest human rights abuses under international law."

"The Chinese government has committed and continue to commit crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic communities in Xinjiang," Sophie Richardson, the China director of Washington-based Human Rights Watch, said in an online press conference on Monday.

On whether China's actions constitute genocide, Richardson said Human Rights Watch said it "has not yet documented the necessary genocidal intent." The Genocide Convention, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, stipulates the official definition.

However, Richardson added "nothing in this report precludes that such a finding should we be able to show the necessary high threshold of evidence for that."

"People feel that if you don't call it genocide, it is somehow not serious, but it is just not true," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the human rights group. The crucial point is "an intent to eradicate in a whole or in part Uyghurs or the Turkic Muslims in the country. That intent is a difficult matter," he said.

While Human Rights Watch has been "conservative" in making calls of this magnitude without solid evidence and facts, Roth added that "we don't in any sense denigrate others who conscientiously have found these facts and reach that conclusion. If that's where they are, that's what they should say, and they shouldn't do political calculations to pull their punches."

A police officer in Xinjiang in 2018. Human Rights Watch and Stanford University are urging the international community to take steps to address issues described in their report.   © Reuters

The U.S., Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands have determined that China's conduct in Xinjiang constitutes genocide under international law. The U.S. Department of State's 2020 human rights report last month classified China's actions in Xinjiang as "genocide and crimes against humanity" for the first time. The House of Commons in the U.K. will vote on the matter on Thursday.

The decision by global retailers and apparel brands such as H&M, Nike and Adidas to reject the use of Xinjiang cotton, which is allegedly produced by forced labor, from their products is facing strong backlash and calls for boycotts by Chinese consumers, while domestic brands like Li Ning and Anta that support using cotton from the region are attracting "patriotic" customers.

Beijing has repeatedly asserted over the years that the facilities where Turkic Muslims have been held are educational centers. "They are not internment camps as some say," Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, said in July 2019.

The report alleges a wide range of human rights abuses in Xinjiang based on two decades of research on this region and by drawing on newly available sources, including documents from the Chinese government. Those abuses include mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious erasures, separation of families, coerced returns to China, forced labor, sexual assault against women and violations on reproductive rights. The report assessed the claims of abuse within the international legal framework.

The report cited the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which was adopted in 1998 and defines crimes against humanity as specified acts "committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack."

It said that definition could be broken down into four requirements: an attack that is "widespread or systematic"; directed against a "civilian population"; committed "with knowledge of the attack"; and conducted as a policy of a state.

The report said that up to about one million Turkic Muslims are under arbitrary detention across the region, which satisfies the first requirement of "widespread or systematic" attack. It also states that the people detained are civilians, meeting the second requirement.

Ethnic Uyghurs study at the Artux Vocational Skill Education Training Service Center in Xinjiang in 2019. (Photo by Shosuke Kato)

For the third requirement, the report quotes an "autonomous region state telegram," an internal Xinjiang government document, of targeting Turkic Muslims in an "assault style re-education" for uncooperative detainees, indicating Beijing's knowledge. Human Rights Watch did not say how it obtained the document.

In terms of the fourth requirement, Human Rights Watch and Stanford said they found separate multiple accounts from former detainees held at different facilities and time periods that were "strikingly similar, which indicates the existence of an organized policy."

Other statements and documents by the Communist Party and Chinese government officials also demonstrate a systemic policy in place. The report references leaked speeches by President Xi Jinping, who was said to have instructed Xinjiang police to "show absolutely no mercy" against "radical Islam."

"It's increasingly clear that Chinese government policies and practices against the Turkic Muslim population in Xinjiang meet the standard for crimes against humanity under international criminal law," Beth Van Schaack, visiting professor at Stanford Law School, said in a statement. "The government's failure to stop these crimes, let alone punish those responsible, shows the need for strong and coordinated international action."

Human Rights Watch and Stanford are urging the international community to take immediate steps to address the situation.

The report calls on the U.N. Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution to create a designated commission to investigate the allegations and identify officials it says are responsible for abuses and for them to be held accountable. It also calls for concerted action by foreign governments to crack down on individuals who it says are directly responsible, by imposing visa and travel bans.

In addition to these measures, the report requests foreign governments to review all investments in Xinjiang and impose economic sanctions, if necessary, "including divestment, in sectors facing credible allegations of serious abuses such as forced labor."

A sign on a building in Xinjiang in 2019 urges people to "firmly implement" the region's policy, with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the core of the Communist Party. (Photo by Shosuke Kato)

"It is increasingly clear that a coordinated global response is needed to end China's crimes against humanity against Turkic Muslims," Richardson said. "That China is a powerful state makes it all the more important for holding it accountable for its unrelenting abuses."

In recent days, China has criticized allegations of abuses in Xinjiang.

After the first face-to-face meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Washington over the weekend, at which the two leaders in a joint statement expressed "serious concerns regarding the human rights situations" in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson struck back, saying the issues were "purely the internal affairs of China."

A spokesperson at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo also rejected the concerns, saying in a statement: "These matters bear on China's fundamental interests and allow no interference."

Beijing has been allowing external investigators to enter Xinjiang, but with limitations.

"The big gate of the Xinjiang region is always wide open," Hua Chunying, one of the foreign ministry spokespersons, said at a news conference on March 24. She stressed that all foreigners are welcome, but only those "without prejudice" who are not "staunchly against anyone with presumption of guilt."

According to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court could investigate and prosecute individuals alleged to be most responsible for serious cases, including crimes against humanity, even when a state with primary jurisdiction is unwilling or unable to do so.

However, such a path is infeasible given that China is not part of that international framework. Likewise, the possibility of the U.N. Security Council instructing the International Criminal Court to pursue the case is out of the question, since China -- as one of the five permanent members -- could use its veto power to thwart any such move.

"It has not been new to Uyghur people what has been happening and has happened over decades, but things have only escalated in the past few years," said Jewher Tohti, a Uyghur activist, who joined the online call. For her, this is something personal as well, as her father is Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur intellectual known for promoting cross-ethnic understanding and dialogue but labelled as a "separatist" by Beijing and sentenced to life in 2014.

"We can help stop current crimes against humanity if we act now. Governments, companies, and everyone have to take actions now," she said.

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