Only an international effort can put an end to China’s crimes in Xinjiang

Show caption Satellite images released in February by Copernicus, the EU Earth observation programme, show a detention facility near Dabancheng, Xinjiang. Photograph: AP Opinion Only an international effort can put an end to China’s crimes in Xinjiang Jewher Ilham and Sophie Richardson As the daughter of a Uyghur economist imprisoned for life, I call on governments and the UN to act together Jewher Ilham, the daughter of Ilham Tohti, is an author at the Project to Combat Forced Labor at the Worker Rights Consortium. Sophie Richardson is China director at Human Rights Watch Sun 16 May 2021 16.29 BST Share on Facebook

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China’s president, Xi Jinping, declared back in 2014 in a series of speeches delivered in private to officials that he intended to crack down harshly in Xinjiang, the north-western region of China where about 13 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims make up half the population. The reality of that “strike hard against violent extremism” campaign, which followed decades of repressive policies, is now clear: Chinese authorities are committing crimes against humanity.

Xi’s comments followed several violent incidents reportedly involving Uyghurs that year. And among his statements, in documents leaked to the media, was this: “Don’t be afraid if hostile forces whine, or if hostile forces malign the image of Xinjiang.”

The Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti – Jewher Ilham’s father – who devoted his career to promoting equality and defending free speech, was an early victim of that crackdown, with a sentence to life in prison on baseless charges of separatism. Jewher has not seen her father since 2013, and does not know when or if she will see him or other family members again. None of her family members have seen her father since 2017.

Ilham Tohti’s fate was a grim harbinger of the government’s campaign of repression against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims across the Uyghur region. The Chinese government has since arbitrarily detained an estimated 1 million Turkic Muslims in “political re-education” facilities. There they are pressured to relinquish their cultural identity. Unprecedented numbers have been imprisoned after sham trials and given harsh sentences. Many were tortured or forcibly disappeared.

In addition to these violent attempts to strip the Uyghur people of their culture, the Chinese government is running a programme to “cleanse” ethnic minorities of their “extremist” thoughts. More than 80,000 Uyghurs and people from other Turkic and Muslim minorities have been coercively transferred to work in factories, where they are not given the freedom to return home.

The region is awash in surveillance technology that the authorities use to penalise legal and everyday behaviour. The cultural devastation – marginalising Turkic languages, bulldozing mosques, destroying cemeteries – along with the deep psychological harm, is likely irreparable.

Children have been institutionalised without their parents’ consent, and a number of women who have fled the region share chilling stories of enduring sexual and reproductive violence in detention. The authorities’ own slogan for the abusive campaign – to “break people’s lineage” – reflects a violent ambition.

As evidence of these abuses has piled up, Chinese authorities – from Xi all the way to local-level officials – have tried various strategies to reject the “hostile forces whining and maligning”. Their initial approach was simply to deny these crimes were happening at all.

When confronted with testimony of those who had been arbitrarily detained, and satellite imagery showing the construction and growth of camps, authorities changed their story and said they were providing “vocational training” to help economic development in the region. Chinese government officials insisted that participation was voluntary, and organised Potemkin visits for diplomats, journalists and even religious figures whom they expected would faithfully repeat Beijing’s version of events. Meanwhile, Beijing continues to stonewall independent international investigators, denounce critics and produce a tidal wave of propaganda.

Governments and United Nations officials are increasingly critical of China’s actions. The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada have imposed unprecedented, coordinated sanctions. Dozens of UN human rights experts, the high commissioner for human rights and the previously quiet secretary-general have expressed concern about Beijing’s treatment of Turkic Muslims.

Groups like the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region are also pressuring corporations to stop profiting from these crimes. Some 20% of the world’s cotton comes from the Uyghur region, and it is likely that one in five cotton garments in the marketplace are tainted by Uyghur forced labor. Some brands, such as Marks & Spencer and Eileen Fisher, have taken an ethical path by agreeing to remove the Uyghur region from their supply chains. Others, such as Fila, have doubled down on their support for Xinjiang cotton to preserve their Chinese market share.

Crimes against humanity are considered among the gravest human rights abuses under international law. They are serious, specified offences – arbitrary detention, cultural persecution, enforced disappearances, among others – that are knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population. Ensuring justice for the victims is primarily the responsibility of the state in question.

Xi’s 2014 speeches gave no sense that any Chinese officials expected to be held accountable for these crimes, and this is where other governments and the United Nations need to act to prove them wrong. Various governments have pushed for a United Nations-backed investigation into the Uyghur region; if Beijing continues to obstruct such a mission inside the country then UN investigators should gather evidence outside China. Concerned governments can also begin investigations into individual criminal responsibility for pursuit in domestic courts.

Pursuing such action is an extraordinary challenge, but the Xi government’s abuses – from silencing human rights activists and journalists, to destroying Hong Kong’s democracy, to its increasingly global surveillance efforts – make clear that a Chinese leadership unchecked by international law and accountability will only be further emboldened.

The gravity of abuses against Ilham Tohti and so many others across the Uyghur region is breathtaking. But to fail in the effort to stop them would be to give Beijing a free pass to commit crimes against humanity. The supposedly “hostile forces” do not need to “whine” – they need to act.

Jewher Ilham, the daughter of Ilham Tohti, is an author and program associate at the Project to Combat Forced Labor at the Worker Rights Consortium. Sophie Richardson is China director at Human Rights Watch.