A teacher and two armed guards stand on the other side of barrier from detainees at a “class” in an internment camp.

China: UN Human Rights Council must ensure accountability for ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang

The UN Human Rights Council must end its years of inaction and establish an independent international mechanism to investigate crimes under international law in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Amnesty International said today.

The Council session, which began on 12 September, is the first since the UN High Commissioner’s recent report on government atrocities in Xinjiang. The long-overdue assessment corroborates extensive evidence of serious human rights violations against Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority communities, documented by Amnesty International and other credible organizations.

People who recently fled Xinjiang and family members of detainees continue to tell Amnesty International that people in the region are still being persecuted and arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of their religion and ethnicity.

“The Human Rights Council has consistently failed to protect the human rights of millions of Muslims in Xinjiang who have suffered countless atrocities over the past five years. Many member states of the Council used the former High Commissioner’s long-standing silence to justify their own,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard.

“But the time for half-measures has passed now that the High Commissioner’s office has confirmed that the atrocities documented may constitute crimes against humanity and require immediate attention. The Council must issue a response commensurate with the scale and gravity of the violations.”

Amnesty International is calling on Council members to take concrete steps towards halting the Chinese authorities’ abuses and ensure accountability. The Council must table a resolution during this session and mandate an independent international mechanism to investigate crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, with a view to ensuring accountability, including through the identification of suspected perpetrators.

Member states must also, immediately and unequivocally, demand that the Chinese government release all those arbitrarily detained in internment camps, prisons or other facilities, as well as commit to returning no one to China who is at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations.

China’s cover-up in Xinjiang

Chinese authorities have attempted to block investigations by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and others, and have pressured UN member states to minimize or ignore the evidence available. As a result, UN investigators were not permitted to go to Xinjiang and the scope of the High Commissioner’s investigation was limited.

By speaking to UN or other investigators or journalists, people living in or with family ties to Xinjiang have risked detention, arrest, imprisonment, torture and enforced disappearance, for themselves and their family members.

“Internally, China continues to use severe violence, unlawful restrictions and intimidation, while also employing diplomatic strong-arming on the world stage to cover up its atrocities in Xinjiang. Council members must see China’s attempts to delegitimize the report’s findings for what they are – nothing less than an attempt to hide crimes against humanity and deter criticism,” said Agnès Callamard.

“If Council members fail to act now, they will become complicit in the Chinese government’s cover-up. It would send a dangerous message to Chinese authorities that member states can be bullied into ignoring credible evidence of serious human rights violations, and that powerful states are beyond effective scrutiny.

“This would be an unforgivable betrayal to the millions of victims, survivors and their family members. This includes the many hundreds of thousands of people still believed to be arbitrarily detained.”

People fleeing Xinjiang

Between January and June 2022, Amnesty International visited Central Asia and Turkey to interview people who recently fled Xinjiang and family members of those arbitrarily detained.

Overwhelmingly, those who fled recently were too terrified to speak openly about their experiences, fearing retaliation against family members still in Xinjiang.

However, six people who fled Xinjiang between late 2020 and late 2021 agreed to speak to Amnesty International on the condition of anonymity. They described a life of relentless oppression in Xinjiang, stemming from Chinese policies to severely restrict the freedoms of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups. These include grave violations of the rights to liberty and security of person; to privacy; to freedom of movement; to opinion and expression; to thought, conscience, religion, and belief; to take part in cultural life; to equality and non-discrimination; and to freedom from forced labour.

An ethnic Kazakh man who left Xinjiang in early 2021 told Amnesty International how people in his town were still unable to practice their religion. “The religious restrictions remain [in 2021]… There were five mosques [in my town] – four were destroyed… The remaining one is guarded and monitored… Nobody goes! … Maybe [people pray] in the dark of night with the window closed, in silence,” he said.

Amnesty International interviewed the mother of Erbolat Mukametkali, an ethnic Kazakh man. Erbolat was arrested in March 2017, spent a year in internment camps, and was then given a 17-year prison sentence. Erbolat’s mother believes he was arrested solely because of his religious practices. “I miss my son… I’m old, my dream is to die when my son is with me,” she said.

Amnesty International also interviewed a male relative of Berzat Bolatkhanm, an ethnic Kazakh, who was arrested in April 2017 after being accused of being a “state traitor”. The relative believes that Berzat was arrested because of his ethnicity and because he was planning to move to Kazakhstan. After a year in an internment camp, Berzat was given a 17-year prison sentence. “He was just doing his job. He was a farmer. Suddenly, because he wanted to move to Kazakhstan… police arrested him… He is not an extremist, not a terrorist,” Berzat’s relative told Amnesty International.

Among Amnesty International’s more recent interviewees was a woman who now lives in Turkey. Her sister Muherrem Muhammed Tursun, a primary school teacher, disappeared in August 2021 after posting a video on her WeChat profile about her family celebrating Eid. Her family believes she was detained due to her Uyghur ethnicity and because her son went to Turkey to study religion before going back to Urumqi to study dentistry. He was taken away in early 2017 while Muherrem’s mother, Tajinisa Emin, was taken to an internment camp in 2020. When their relatives in Turkey tried to find out more details, a relative still in the region simply replied: “don’t ask questions, they are gone.”

These individuals are only a fraction of the likely hundreds of thousands of people arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang, 126 of whom Amnesty International has profiled in its Free Xinjiang Detainees campaign. The Council’s failure to act now would be tantamount to abandoning the survivors and families of victims who have jeopardized their safety by speaking out.
“In 2022, Muslim ethnic groups continue to face widespread and systematic persecution in Xinjiang. China’s crimes against humanity and other serious violations violate their basic rights and threaten to erase their religious and cultural identities,” said Agnès Callamard.

“The international community’s failure to take meaningful action has only empowered China to continue the ongoing violations and cover-up. The Council must mandate an international investigative mechanism now, to end the Chinese authorities’ longstanding impunity.”