Since late 2016, the Chinese government has vastly expanded its harsh repression of the Turkic Muslim population in Xinjiang, in China’s northwest region, in what it officially calls its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.” This crackdown dramatically escalated Beijing’s longstanding conflation of the distinct cultural, linguistic and religious identity of Uyghurs and other Muslims in China with political disloyalty or “separatism.”
Chinese authorities have arbitrarily detained as many as a million people in hundreds of facilities, which include “political education” camps, pretrial detention centers and prisons. Detainees and prisoners are subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, as well as cultural and political indoctrination. The oppression continues outside the detention facilities with a pervasive system of mass surveillance, controls on movement, cultural and religious erasure, and family separation. There have also been reports of forced labor and reproductive rights violations, including forced abortions, and sexual violence.
If human rights violations of this scope and scale were taking place in Europe or the United States, one would expect Muslim-majority countries to have erupted in protest. Yet, years into this repression, these governments have maintained a deafening silence. Worse still, many have actively helped to whitewash these abuses. In October 2022, after a groundbreaking U.N. report concluded that the Chinese government’s abuses against Uyghurs “may constitute crimes against humanity,” a number of Muslim-majority countries rejected a motion in the U.N. Human Rights Council to hold a debate on the situation in Xinjiang, thwarting an unprecedented opportunity to hold Beijing accountable for such grave crimes.
The reasons for such hypocrisy are clear. In the Middle East, China is often one of these countries’ biggest trading partners, investors and creditors, from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates to Egypt. For some countries beyond the region, such as Indonesia, the Chinese government has also worked hard over the years to win the hearts of top officials, religious figures and civil society groups. Many of these governments are also authoritarian themselves and have little interest in defending human rights, either at home or abroad.
However, while the outcome of the Human Rights Council vote was deeply disappointing, the fact that the council came within a few votes of putting China on the agenda was actually a huge step forward, and clearly showed growing cross-regional concern and willingness by some countries to speak up on principle, despite the political or economic costs. Just a few years ago, this would have been unthinkable.
While previous statements expressing concern over sweeping abuses in Xinjiang at the U.N. had largely been delivered by Western countries, for the first time last fall we saw support from countries from multiple regional and political groups. Both Turkey and Albania—members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, whose charter commits member states to “safeguard the rights, dignity and religious and cultural identity of Muslim communities and minorities in non-Member States”—supported the motion. Yet many other OIC members, including Arab states, did not.
Concern is clearly growing, and no country can now say they do not know what is happening in Xinjiang. The European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada have all imposed targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on senior officials in Xinjiang who have been accused of serious human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. Although Australia in 2021 passed legislation that enables such sanctions, it has yet to actually impose them.
Yet much more still needs to be done to hold the Chinese government accountable. Governments from all regional and political groups need to take a principled stand, recommit to the universality of the U.N. human rights system, and work together to open a comprehensive investigation into the sweeping abuses in Xinjiang, as urged by an unprecedented number of U.N. experts and hundreds of civil society organizations from around the world.
More governments need to impose visa bans, travel bans and targeted individual sanctions on abusive Xinjiang officials under their human rights sanctions regimes, ideally collectively, to send the right message to the Chinese government. These governments should publicly condemn the rights abuses in Xinjiang, and they should specify that Chinese authorities are responsible for criminal acts that are part of widespread or systematic attacks against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang that amount to crimes against humanity.
They should also facilitate prosecutions against Chinese officials implicated in crimes against humanity on the basis of universal jurisdiction laws. They should encourage national prosecutors to open investigations, similar to International Criminal Court preliminary examinations, in which the prosecutor’s office collects and analyzes information about alleged serious violations to provide groundwork for future prosecutions. States party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination should individually and jointly file complaints against China for its violations of the convention against Turkic Muslims.
Given that many of the abuses in Xinjiang are facilitated by the use of technologies procured from private companies, governments should also impose escalating actions against technology companies found to be contributing to China’s mass surveillance state in Xinjiang, including by imposing sanctions on these companies. Relevant government agencies should review all investments in Xinjiang and, where necessary, impose trade sanctions in sectors facing credible allegations of serious abuses, such as forced labor. They can issue public advisories to companies similar to the one issued by Canada in January 2021 about the gravity of human rights violations in Xinjiang.
For countries with Turkic Muslim diasporas, governments should end all direct and indirect forced returns of Turkic Muslims to China, while ensuring that Turkic Muslims have access to a fair system for adjudicating asylum requests. Uyghurs have been forcibly returned to China, or face such grave risks, throughout the Middle East, including from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Governments hosting Uyghurs who have fled China should facilitate family reunification by allowing family members of Turkic Muslims to join them. They should create systems to track harassment of Turkic Muslims in other countries and take steps, including through criminal law, to hold those responsible accountable. They should also ensure that Turkic Muslims have access to programs providing legal, medical and psychological assistance to survivors of torture, rape and other crimes, and for cultural and religious preservation.
Civil society organizations have pushed governments in the right direction. These groups—many run by Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims—have been at the forefront of documenting and raising awareness about such abuses globally. Others have urged governments to provide safe havens for persecuted Uyghurs, such as in Canada. Groups around the world have played a key role in pushing their governments to take action at the U.N.
But while some Muslim organizations and other NGOs have expressed strong concerns and protested against China’s treatment of Muslims, others—such as a number of groups in Indonesia—have also rallied against religious minorities like Christians in their own countries. Civil society is most effective when it can hold governments everywhere to the same human rights standards.
The gravity of the crimes against humanity in Xinjiang deserves global action, or else abusers like the Chinese government will be further emboldened. The credibility and strength of the U.N. human rights systems also hinges upon their ability to hold all countries, including powerful ones, to account. What is at stake is not just the rights of Uyghurs, or people in China, but the rights and dignity of everyone around the world.