• EB - Human Rights Society

Prosecution of the Uyghurs: A Case of Genocide, Minority Rights Violations and Discrimination


Religion has always been a hotbed in Chinese polity, for it tends to create a distinct identity amongst people, much against the State’s mandated homogeneous Chinese culture. Xinjiang re-education camps depict the extreme form of the Sinicization policy, which has led to widespread persecution and denial of minority rights to ethnic Uyghur Muslims. Several reports confirm that China has committed gross human rights violations against the Uyghurs, and is thereby, guilty of committing crimes against humanity. The people of Xinjiang are forced to live under a Panopticon State with little civil liberties and religious freedom. This article argues that the actions of China fall very well within the definition of Genocide and ethnic cleansing. The only difference is that, unlike traditional genocide, Genocide by China is a slow and sophisticated form of the same process. The actions of China yet again raise the question of the protection of minority rights and how international law deals with the issue.

Keywords: Xinjiang, Uyghur, Crimes against Humanity, Genocide, Minority rights, Persecution of the Uyghurs, China’s detention camps, International Human Rights Law


Despite having a great diversity of religious beliefs, religion has always been a flashpoint in the polity of the People's Republic of China. The secular country has viewed religion from a narrow perspective of a personal choice that has little space in the social, economic, cultural or educational institutions. Since the Mao Zedong era, religious practices and customs have been frowned upon and severely curtailed by the State. It was only after the Cultural Revolution that religion and religious beliefs came to be more openly accepted and practised in China, but for not long. In the 1990s, religion was increasingly seen as a threat to the national security and territorial integrity of China. Following in the footsteps of the West, the Chinese state started its own ‘War on Terror’ to keep a close watch over the Muslim population, and targeting Muslims became a state policy.

Among the many ethnic minorities in China, the Uyghurs (also spelt “Uighurs”) are a predominantly Muslim minority residing in the north-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), (also called Xinjiang). Belonging to the Turkic ethnic group, they have more in common with the Central Asian people in terms of religion, culture, and language than with the majority Han population of China. They practice a moderate form of Sunni religion and regard their Muslim heritage as a core feature of their collective identity. Numbering somewhere around 11 to 15 million, they comprise roughly around 45% (according to the Government 2000 census) of the total population of Xinjiang. At one point, the Uyghurs comprised 75% of the total population in Xinjiang (according to the Government 1953 census) however, successive government-sponsored immigration of the Hans reduced the Uyghurs to a minority in their own homeland. Because of their deep religious beliefs, the Uyghur Muslims have been subject to government oppression and discrimination for a long time. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Muslims became the prime targets of ultra-nationalists in general and the Uyghurs were particularly targeted. The idea of a common identity and utmost devotion to the State made any community with a distinct culture and identity a natural enemy of the State and the Uyghurs were an obvious target.


Article 36 of the 1982 Constitution of China guarantees freedom of religious beliefs to the people of China. The Article forbids the State or its organs to compel citizens to follow or abstain from any religion and bans discrimination by the State on the basis of religion. Further, the Article proclaims that the State protects normal religious activities. In fact, the Constitution of China imposes a negative duty on State - not to interfere in religious matters and discrimination on the basis of religion. However, the second leg of the Article imposes a negative duty on the people when it comes to practicing religious beliefs. The Article prohibits all religious activities that disturb public order, impair the health of people or interfere with the educational system run by the State.

Time and again, human rights experts have raised doubts on the scope of religious freedom in People’s Republic of China (PRC). A report by the Human Rights Watch’s China director, Sophie Richardson, highlights that what is protected under the religious freedom doctrine of China are the so-called “normal activities” related to religion. Further, the constitution of China nowhere defines the term “normal activities,” leaving a broad range of religious practices open to speculation and hence, prohibition. All the religious organizations in China must register themselves with one of the five State-sponsored patriotic religious associations, which are controlled and administered by the State Administration for Religious Affairs. All religious groupings are regarded with suspicion by the State authorities and any protest, peaceful or otherwise, is cracked down on and dealt with undue severity.

The fact that the State of China is duty-bound to protect only normal religious activities makes religious protection in China a sham. The State is free to declare any religious activity outside the

purview of “normal religious activity”, and it can impose regulations on grounds of public health, order or security of the State.


For years, State officials in China have severely suppressed any unrest attributed to the Uyghur Muslims on the ground that the community predominantly holds extremist and separatist ideas. But the reality is different. Coming from one of the poorest regions in China, the Uyghurs have been subject to discrimination on wide-ranging issues. The resulting criticism of the State by the Uyghurs is often dubbed as extremism and a dangerous ploy to threaten the security of the State.

The 2009 Urumqi riots were a culmination of years of discrimination and persecution by the Chinese government. Without understanding the real causes behind the tension, the Chinese State authorities came with their whole surveillance and securitization plan. Since then, the autonomous region of Xinjiang and the Uyghurs in particular, have been forcibly made to live in a Panopticon - a situation of complete state surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ movements. The government further tried to consolidate its hold over them by a new “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism” policy which was launched in 2014. The region has been under continuous government monitoring and control through a mass surveillance program that involves the use of high-tech cameras and imaging techniques, checkpoints, and police stations within 100 feet. There is heightened security over the area with severe restrictions on movement and communication.

However, one of the most worrisome policies of the government is the forced population-control program in the region. Under this program, the Uyghur women have been subjected to forced sterilization, IUDs, and other mandatory birth control measures and upon resistance, they were forced to spend their life in internment camps. Recent findings reveal that national population growth in the autonomous region of Xinjiang has fallen by more than 84 per cent between 2015 and 2018. There has been a significant rise in the number of women with menopausal symptoms in the region, possibly due to the injections given at the internment camps.


Called “Vocational Training Centres” by the State, the “Thought Transformation” camps in China are actually illegal detention centres that have sprung up all over Xinjiang in a short time. Secret documents reveal that since 2017, the Chinese government has been investing heavily in the fortification of Xinjiang. Run more like in the style of prison camps, these training/detention centres essentially aim at brainwashing the Uyghurs to change their ideological mindset. The aim of these centres is to weaken the connection between the Uyghurs and their religious beliefs, to introduce them to a whole new learning environment where there is less emphasis on religion and greater attention on nationalism. The camps, which are believed to be holding more than a million Uyghurs, have already become infamous for their Nazi-style operation which includes pathetic living and dining conditions. There have been reports of detainees being subject to torture and sexual abuse.


Article 2 of the 1948 UN Convention against Genocide stipulates that the crime of Genocide entails the killing of members of a group, or causing serious bodily or mental harm to a group, or bringing calculated physical destruction of a group, or preventing births in a group, or transferring children to another group. Following the judgment in Prosecutor v. Akayesu by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the definition of Genocide has been widened to include State measures like enslavement, deportation, starvation, detention directed against any religious, ethical, national, or racial group. Many of these measures are implicit in China's surveillance and detention program.

China’s mass detention camps are completely isolated from the outside world, and so are torture, persecution, and forced labour that are habitual inside the camps. The conditions in the camps are deplorable and unbearable with round the clock surveillance and fear of punishment. With reports confirming the disappearance of individuals from the camps, it could be inferred that in these detention centres, punishment by death or imprisonment is common.


As per the definition provided in United Nations Minorities Declaration, a minority is a group generally numerically inferior to the rest of the population, whose members have a distinct national or ethnic, religious, cultural, or linguistic identity. The Declaration provides a list of rights that the States must protect and guarantee to its minority population. Such rights include the right to enjoy their culture, practice their religion and use their language.

This is in sharp contrast to what the State of China is doing in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. The Uyghurs, a recognized ethnic minority in China, have been completely deprived of their right to profess and practice their religion. There are strict restrictions on religious practices and religious education. The Islamic initiations of learning are seen to be promoting extremist ideas. The Chinese administration, through the re-education camps, is silently erasing the distinct identity of Uyghurs by forcefully subjecting them to ideas that are foreign to their culture. To this extent, the Chinese administration is deliberately indulging in the Cultural Genocide of the Uyghur Muslims. By imposing strict regulatory policies like the “Strike Hard” policy, the administration is discriminating against the Uyghur on the basis of religion. The Uyghur women have to suffer the double whammy of sexual offences and religious persecution. They have not only been denied their right to practice religion but have also been denied reproductive and health rights.


Riots and unrest are often met by enhanced securitization of the region by the governments, which significantly changes the status quo and relations between the State and the ethnic minority. With enhanced securitization, minority rights are put on the back burner, and the suppression of separatist tendencies becomes the regime's focus. The isolation of the minority from the rest of the country is achieved through a distinct social and institutional setup. It culminates in the dehumanization of a community and widespread human rights violations. The world has already suffered the scourge of gross human rights violations numerous times in history, and it should not allow the same to happen again. The world community needs to come together to compel China to answer the claims of gross human rights violations committed in Reeducation Camps. What is needed at this hour is a comprehensive UN-monitored probe into human rights violations committed by the State officials in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.


1. Dilmurat Mahmut, Controlling Religious Knowledge and Education for Countering Religious Extremism – Case study of the Uyghur Muslims in China, 5 FIRE: Forum for International Research in Education 22–43 (2019).

2. Arienne M Dwyer, The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse, 124.

3. Çaksu, Islamophobia, Chinese Style: Total Internment of Uyghur Muslims by the People’s Republic of China, 5 Islamophobia Studies Journal 175 (2020).

4. CONSTITUTION OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA, http://en.people.cn/constitution/constitution.html (last visited Jan 6, 2021).

5. Carol Lee Hamrin et al., China’s Religions (Re)Awakening and the Impact of Religion on Chinese Society.

6. The State of Religion in China Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/religion-china (last visited Jan 6, 2021).

7. Zhang Qianfan & Zhu Yingping, Religious Freedom and Its Legal Restrictions in China, BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY LAW REVIEW 35 (2011).

8. M Rayila, The Pain of a Nation: The Invisibility of Uyghurs in China Proper, 14 (2011).

9. Adrian Zenz & Jamestown Foundation (Va.), Sterilizations, IUDs, and mandatory birth control: the CCP’s campaign to suppress Uyghur birthrates in Xinjiang (2020), https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Zenz-Sterilizations-IUDs-and-Mandatory-Birth-Control-FINAL-27June.pdf?x71937 (last visited Jan 6, 2021).

10. Bangkok Post Public Company Limited, Leaked documents show operations of prison camps in Xinjiang, Bangkok Post, , https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/1801579/leaked-documents-show-operations-of-prison-camps-in-xinjiang (last visited Jan 6, 2021).

11. Id.

12. UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948.


14. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, 1992.

This piece has been authored by Mohd Sikandar.

Mr. Mohd Sikandar is an LLM Scholar from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.

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