Updated: Aug 29, 2020
Since April 2017, approximately eight hundred thousand to two million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups like Kazakhs and Uzbeks have been arbitrarily detained by the Xinjiang Government in more than 85 identified internment camps.
Part I of the Article provided a detailed analysis of the atrocities committed against these communities with special reference to the human rights violations committed on them in the re-education camps. This article discusses the Treatment that the participants of these camps receive and the International response to the same. Furthermore, it discusses the impact of this pandemic on the Uyghurs and the ways in which it should be dealt with.
Treatment in Re-education Camps
The severity of treatment in the re-education centers is evident from the telegram (operation manual containing guidelines for managing the detention camps) procured under China Cables Documents which lays bare the extensive system of social control enforced within such camps as follows:
The Guidelines on Preventing escapes (point 2) and Prevent trouble (Point 3) commands strict monitoring and control of student activities as well as their social isolation from the outside world except for the activities allowed. Further, teaching Mandarin language and testing its knowledge is seen as one of the important bases of the education scheme.(Points 8 and 10). It also mentions methods of forceful indoctrination and introduces a “point-based evaluation system” which needs to be incorporated into the “integrated” platform (a massive database that forms part of the surveillance system) when students enter or leave the training center. Accordingly, the right to freedom and opinion (including religious opinion) which is an absolute right granted by Article 19(1) of ICCPR, seems to be outrightly violated through the norms of political indoctrination in such ‘re-education” centers.
Further, it has also been argued that such arbitrary and prolonged detention coupled with the refusal to provide information, denial of basic rights and severe conditions of treatment, resulting in serious psychological harm, may constitute torture [OL CHN 18/2019]. Interviews of ex-detainees are also a proof of the torture subjected in the camps which include systematically raping and assaulting women, conducting medical experiments on detainees which weaken them cognitively, sterilization of men or interfering with menstrual cycles of women, forcing them to wear metal clad ‘iron clothes’, etc.
Thus, the actions or omissions on part of the Chinese administration are violative of Article 2 (States responsibility to prevent torture) and Article 12 (State’s responsibility to investigate into acts of torture) of the Convention on Torture. Prevention of torture and specific guidelines have no-where been mentioned in the operating manuals thus such actions also are violative of Article 10 of the Convention which lays down that States need to educate personnel who handle detention of people, about the prohibition of torture.
International Response, COVID-19 and The Way Forward:
In 2019, 22 countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK) had signed a joint Statement addressing the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urging China to terminate its mass arbitrary detention and related violence against the Muslim Ethnic communities. However, amusingly, a day later 37 other countries, a majority of which were Islamic, backed China’s counter-terrorism policies and human rights record, dismissing the allegations embedded in the reports elucidating mass arbitrary detentions, state surveillance and gross human right violations, thus resulting in no firm action being taken. However, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, 2019 that had been passed by the US house of representatives in December last year which had failed to get an approval from the US Senate due to amendments made to it has now been approved on May 14 this year. Under the Act, sanctions can be imposed over Chinese officials associated with human rights abuse against Uyghur and other ethnic minorities.
Covid-19 and Plight of The Uyghurs
Apart from the apparent torture in the internment camps, interviews of ex-detainees explain how detainees are cramped in small rooms, with the number of people in a room going upto even 45 and with people having to sleep in turns because of the lack of space. While the sanitary conditions in these camps are atrocious, it has also been found that plastic buckets are being used as toilets and are emptied only once a day. Thus, with such poor conditions prevailing inside the camps and the detainee’s being the most vulnerable to the infection, an outbreak in the camp may prove to be devastating and may also result in the virus becoming more virulent.
Further, reports also establish that detainees have been engaged in forced labor which may also constitute a violation of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 of the International Labour Organization to which China is a party. The labour transfer programme is being used by companies in the PPE supply chain that force Uyghur laborers to produce equipment which is then not only sold domestically but also exported globally. This also poses major concerns amidst such testing times.
According to the joint statement issued by International agencies including the WHO, not only Social distancing norms are to be followed but also compulsory detention without due process need to be ceased as human rights may be abused and the health of the detainees may be posed with increased risk of outbreaks if such detentions continue to exist. China has already breached its obligation of informing the WHO in a time-bound manner, about a public health emergency of International concern pursuant to Article 7 of the International Health Regulations 2005 ( which is binding on its 196 member countries and thus on China) and under Article 6 para 2 which establishes a responsibility on the State to report to the WHO the number of deaths and the health measures employed, including those in the internment camps. Further, according to Article 42 of the IHR, States need to implement health measures without any delay and in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner. However, due to China’s strict censorship laws and secrecy over the camps (proof of which is point 25 on the instruction manual ), getting any information about the detained Uyghurs has become far more difficult leading to a greater violation of the principles of transparency and non-discrimination in implementing health measures.
When asked about the fears of an outbreak in such camps, the spokesperson of the Xinjiang regional government, reiterated governor Shohrat Zakir’s December announcement that all the trainee’s in the internment camps have graduated, thus refuting any such allegations on outbreaks emerging in the camps having an impact on the detainees. Considering China’s past inconsistent stands on the existence of such camps, this baseless assertion, in the absence of any evidence only helps to concretize China’s aggressive strategy over Xinjiang and intent to carry on the legacy of its crimes in a secretive manner.
The intent of the Chinese authorities to eliminate the Muslim ethnic communities by enforcing birth control measures like forced sterilizations, abortions, etc. has been clearly evidenced in the recent report by Dr. Adrian Zenz. A complaint alleging crime against humanity and genocide of Muslim ethnic groups has already been filed at the ICC by exiled East Turkmenistan groups and while it seeks the prosecutor to open an investigation into the alleged crimes, the continued existence of these detention camps amidst the Pandemic may eventually lead to exterminations on a larger scale and the Pandemic can be used as an excuse for the same.
Thus, with the surge of COVID-19 cases in Xinjiang and the increased fears of outbreaks inside camps, the demands of the Uyghur groups embedded in their petition to the WHO needs to be worked upon. The demands are:
i) A delegation be sent to the region to evaluate the conditions and implement disease control measures to prevent mass outbreaks and deaths
ii) Pressure be created by the International community on China to close these internment camps
iii) Medical supplies and teams are sent by Global health and Humanitarian organizations
to the Uyghur region to manage the screen, diagnose and treat patients
As part of the International pressure, the US in July 2020, has imposed sanctions on many Chinese officials including Chen Quanguo (Party secretary of the Xinjiang region), Zhu Hailun (former deputy party secretary for the region), Wang Mingshan (director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau) and Huo Liujun( former party secretary of the bureau) under which officials and their immediate relatives are debarred from entering the US and their US-based assets will be frozen. These sanctions have been perceived as highly symbolic in nature and have been retaliated by China who imposed sanctions back on US officials.
The Muslim ethnic groups in the Xinjiang province of China have suffered massive human right violations throughout the years which continue to date. It is high time that international organizations take the onus of treating the matter seriously so as to safeguard the rights of the people after the issue being brought to the notice of the International forum through countless efforts of various activists, groups and Uyghurs in exile, sufficed by ample amount of shreds of evidence.
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The article has been written by Manav Bhatt who is an undergraduate law student at Hidayatullah National Law University(HNLU), Raipur. He has a keen interest in Public International Law, International Relations and Human Rights Law.