• Tharika Sai

Acknowledging the unacknowledged fate: China's suppression of Uyghur Muslims

Abstract: This paper talks about the grave human rights violations of Uyghur Muslims in China rooting from the inherent Islamophobia in China. This paper seeks to highlight how these detention camps in China constitute a breach of several international treaties like the ICESCR, CAT, UDHR, ICERD, and several other treaties all of which China has ratified to. China being a global power, certainly makes it a defining feature of international political regime and this may have several implications on the treatment of international human rights.

Keywords: Uyghur Muslims in China, International human rights violation, Legal implications


Uyghur Muslims are a Turkish ethnic group originating from the general region of Central and East Asia. Islamism has always been a crucial part of their culture and ideologies, and hence, the Uyghurs slowly started to become Islamized since the 10th century. By the 16th century, most Uyghurs identified as Muslims. The Uyghurs are considered a part of China's 55 officially recognized religious and ethnic minorities.


Owing to China’s Islamophobia, the Chinese have rejected the idea of the Uyghurs being an indigenous minority. Muslims are stereotypically labelled as "violent outsiders”. The Chinese, for a prolonged period denied the existence of the camps meant for Uyghur Muslims. However, after they were identified through images with barbed wires and watchtowers, the government termed these camps "vocational training and education centers" and "Xinjiang re-education camps." These internment camps are being run by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government of China and its Chinese Communist Party committee. Muslim detention camps are active since 2017, to implement the policy "people's war on terror" which was introduced in the year 2014 by the Chinese government. They operated outside of the legal system, with several Uyghurs being detained without trial, and having no legitimate charges being levied against any of them.

According to the government, these detention camps for the Uyghurs and other religious minorities seem justifiable in their eyes to supposedly counter terrorism, extremism and promote social integration, considering their religious conservationism and sacrosanct ideologies. However, ever since these camps began, the Chinese have been subject to international criticism bearing in mind the inhumane treatment of the Uyghur Muslims solely because of their religion. The mere idea of these camps is counter-intuitive, given China's motive to promote social integration.


Over 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in over 85 different concentration camps since 2017. They are being targeted solely by the Chinese because their culture and language are vastly different from those of Mainland China. They are being beaten, detained and interrogated because China views them as people who hold extremist views that threaten their country's security. Islamophobia is so rampant in China that the government passed a law condemning women from wearing veils and men from growing long beards which is a crucial part of Islam. They also went on to demolish several mosques in the country. They are forced by the Chinese to undertake psychological indoctrination programs. The Chinese physically and sexually abuse them, subject them to electric shocks and waterboarding. "While being tortured, I muttered, 'Oh Allah,' accidentally, which means 'help me God,' They told me the Chinese Communist Party had more power than Allah. They told me Allah could not save me."

- Mirhigul Tursun (a survivor of the concentration camp)

According to several camp survivors like Tursun, witnessing death and torture was common, recurrent and a part of their daily life. They do not let the prisoners bathe for an entire year, their heads are shaved, children are separated from their parents, and women undergo forced sterilization. There has been an 80% decrease in the population of the Uyghur Muslims after these camps were established which is a cause for concern and a source of evidence that they are being tortured to death in these camps, making it nothing less than the genocide that took place during Nazi Germany. Uyghurs are subject to systematic oppression and inferiority by the members of the CCP, as we can see from Tursun’s anecdote.


These policies and detention camps are not only immoral and self-defeating but even on the legal front, it violates several international human rights treaties and contradicts its own constitution of Xinjiang. Right to religious, cultural, and social freedom is protected by numerous treaties, all of which China has ratified. Articles 2 and 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Articles 1, 2 and 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (ICESCR), and Articles 18-20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) revolve around giving people the freedom to practice one's preferred religion and worship in one's whims without disturbing the peace of the State and without any interference from the State. Article 36 of the Chinese constitution talks about how no state, social organization or individual can coerce citizens to believe in or not believe in a religion, discrimination is prohibited, religious affairs cannot be controlled by foreign forces and the State must protect and respect all religious activities.

However, despite the laws laid down in the constitution and in treaties that China should be guided by because of its formal sanction, no number of adjectives would do justice to the way Uyghur Muslims are being mistreated in China simply due to their religious affiliation. The goal of the Chinese Government is to put an end to any kind of devotion to Islam and hence, the Muslims are made to praise the Chinese Communist Party through recitals, and write "self-criticism" essays. Even outside these camps, Muslims are prevented from performing marriage ceremonies, rituals, naming their children with Muslim names, making pilgrimages to Mecca, and fasting during Ramzan.

China also interferes in the family lives of Uyghurs in the most unabashed manner. In the recent past, it has introduced a "Pair Up and become family" policy that makes Han Chinese (the majority ethnic group in China) 'cadres' stay with Uyghurs to acculturate them gradually. Most often, the cadres stay in these camps, constantly regulating the family's movements and overtly invading the intimate private lives of the Uyghurs. While the family men are detained in state-run camps, the cadres sleep with Uyghur women and children to decrease Uyghur Muslims' population. The "Pair Up and become family" is a clear violation of one's family life treated as a sacred institution in all human rights treaties. Like mentioned above, children are separated from their parents and are sent to Mainland China for state-mandated education. The students who perform well in schools are prepared by the government to serve the nation and are taught to be loyal to the Chinese government. According to most camp survivors, educating their children from home is also considered a huge crime since the Chinese view it as an “extremist ideology.” These policies are violative of Article 12, 16 and 26 of the UDHR and Article 10 of the ICESCR. The family is treated as a "natural and fundamental group unit of society" and therefore, protects citizens from any forcible state interference and gives parents the right to choose their own method of educating their children. Article 2 of the Genocide Convention states that "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" is a way of committing genocide.

China's tradition of concealing information is more evident after these detention camps were started, and in the way they treat the prisoners. Extreme physical, mental, and sexual abuse are all a part of the definition of torture laid down by the Convention Against Torture (CAT). It further states that the State shall take mandatory measures to prevent any extreme forms of abuse even in dire and exceptional circumstances. The Uyghurs are put through torture during inquiries, deprived of food as a form of punishment, tied to chairs for several hours, drugged, and shocked in electric chairs. Women are sexually humiliated and exploited, and their intimate parts would be rubbed around with Chile paste. Other people in the prison are forced to watch when women are being gang-raped. Regardless of one's sex, religion, race, gender or any other aspect of status, Article 2 of the Genocide convention, and Article 5 of the UDHR and ICERD protects citizens from such abuses.

The Chinese government has deliberately destroyed the Muslims' mosques and cultural sites, including their burial grounds stating that they are poorly constructed buildings and therefore, unsafe. Such crimes are protected by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and China's constitution itself safeguards any cultural site/heritage that is of value from destruction. However, from the implementation of these laws, it is evident that the government enforces and applies these laws only for the Han Chinese culture.

The Australian Strategy Policy Institute Report stated that between the years 2017 and 2019, more than eighty thousand Uyghurs had been forcibly transferred under the Xinjiang aid program to other parts of China for forced labour. They are abused regularly and are subject to learning the Han Chinese ideologies outside of their working hours. They are made to work overtime and earn nothing compared to other Han Chinese workers in the factory. Article 23 of the UDHR safeguards citizens of the country from any forced labour and Article 4 of the Constitution of China protects the rights of minorities.

Prisoners are cut off from the outside world as they cannot talk to their relatives or family members. They are detained without any legitimate cause or reason. They are not allowed to plead "not guilty" to terrorism or security charges. In most cases, sentences of the prisoners would be decided beforehand by Chinese officials. Article 2 of the regulation of PRC on arrest and detention states that: "No citizen may be arrested except with the approval or by decision of a people's procuratorate or by decision of a people's court, and arrests must be made by a public security organ."

Apart from the Chinese constitution, Articles 9-11 of the UDHR guarantee fundamental due process rights. On the other hand, China can raise an argument defending the detention of Uyghurs in these camps using the Counter-terrorism law introduced in 2016, that gives the right to punish people just for the religion they practice. However, this argument will stand invalid, taking into account the number of international treaties violated along with its own constitution.

The right to freedom of movement is an enforceable civil right under Article 5 of the ICERD and Article 13 of the UDHR, allowing citizens to enter and leave the country but the Chinese officials keep an eye on the movement of Uyghur Muslims. movement of Uyghurs is closely kept an eye on by Chinese officials.


China's rising global power certainly makes it a defining feature of the present-day international political regime, and this may have several implications on the treatment of international human rights. It was predicted by a renowned political scientist, David Forsythe in 2006, that should an authoritarian regime like China dominate international relations, then the world of international human rights by itself, would automatically change. However, from our pre-existing knowledge of China, considering their authoritarianism it is inevitable that China's treatment of human rights coherently challenges the idea of the existing regime even though they continue to use their self-defensive approach.

To conclude, as a superpower, China should set an example to other nations on its relationship with the human rights arena. Unfortunately, considering China's history and the current scenario, it has always been a country that has had and continues to have huge setbacks with regard to human rights, although faring well in the country's economic and environmental aspects. Quoting DaShanne Stokes, an author and sociologist, he says "Prejudice plunges you into a world of fear and hate. That's no way to live." 'Equality' guaranteed under the constitution is only entirely given meaning to when every person is accepted for their identity, because "The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened" - John. F. Kennedy. We need to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in; one with so much callousness and inhumanity to offer or one where we can all co- exist peacefully and harmoniously.

This piece has been authored by Tharika Sai.

Tharika Sai is a first year Law student at O.P Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, NCR of Delhi. She is passionate about writing and researching on the areas of International Human Rights Law, Public international Law, and feminism.

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