Uighur Muslim detention camps in China — why is nothing being done?

Since 2017, the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been facing criticism from various world leaders and human rights organisations for detaining Uighur Muslims in so-called ‘re-education camps.’ China initially dismissed accusations of human rights abuses, even going so far as to denying the existence of the camps, until October 2018. In an interview with Chinese state media, the governor of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region described the camps as ‘vocational training centres’, however, there is an increasing amount of evidence, such as satellite images and testimonies from previously detained individuals, that these centres are carrying out human rights violations on a massive scale. 

The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority who make up around 45% of the Xinjiang population. Their existence has been under threat since the 1950s, when the Chinese government sponsored a mass migration of Han people into Xinjiang. They enforced policies that encouraged Chinese cultural unity and punished certain expressions of Uighur culture, such as the replacement of Uighur language to Standard Mandarin in primary schools, as well as banning fasting, praying and the wearing of headscarves while at work.

In 2012, campaigns of ‘de-extremification’ began, followed by an announcement of a ‘people’s war on terror’ in 2014, where more restrictions were placed, including a ban on long beards and burqas in public, as well as the use of religious names for children, such as Muhammad. These conditions resulted in an increase of detentions and arrests in Xinjiang, and since 2017, has been considered to be one of the most extensive police states in the world.

the question arises as to why the international response has been so underwhelming?

According to Human Rights Watch, the camps are used to condition Uighur Muslims as part of China’s ‘counter-extremism training’, with the government claiming that the camps, officially named by the CCP as ‘Vocational Education and Training Centres’, are a warranted response to threats of extremism and terrorism. From refusing alcohol to attending mosques, authorities have the power to send individuals to these centres for any behaviour they consider as ‘religious extremism’. These centres consist of both existing buildings — previously schools and offices — as well as purpose built facilities, equipped with extensive surveillance systems, high walls and fences, watchtowers and guarded by armed police forces.

It has also been reported that many Uighur children are being treated as orphans, even though their parents are alive but detained, and have been placed into boarding school-like institutions and orphanages. Children are not allowed to practice their religion or speak the Uighur language; instead, they are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and are only allowed to see their families once every two weeks. In addition to this, numerous sources have reported forced sterilisation, beatings and waterboarding taking place, as well as widespread sexual abuse. 

According to these reports, it is clear that the Chinese government and authorities are committing atrocious acts and must be held accountable for their actions; so the question arises as to why the international response has been so underwhelming?

Countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States can be argued to have a significant amount of influence over human rights violations overseas and can therefore put pressure on China to change its policies. In July 2019, 22 nations, including the UK, signed a statement addressed to the UN to call on China to stop the detention camps in Xinjiang; the US did not issue a statement of either opposition or support. However, a second statement urging China to ‘respect human rights, including freedom of religion and belief’ was issued in October 2019 and this time included the US. On 17 June 2020, the US passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which requires several US government bodies to report human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese government against the Uighur community in Xinjiang.

The US and the UK should be especially criticised for not interfering; both countries have an extensive history of becoming involved with foreign affairs and governments

The human rights organisation Amnesty International have been reporting on the detention camps since October 2018, citing them as ‘places of punishment’ rather than ‘vocational training’, as well as calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council to demand answers from China for ‘human rights violations in the name of national security’ since November 2018. UN human rights experts expressed concern over the growing amounts of credible reports of detention in August 2018, yet took no action until June 2019.

UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov visited Xinjiang and found nothing incriminating against the Chinese government; however, his visit has been criticised by activists, as it may have reinforced the idea that Uighurs are in counter-terrorism training rather than facing human rights abuses. Some activists also noted that a tour around the camps while constantly shadowed by government officials offers very little insight to what the camps are actually like, especially because detainees are not allowed to be interviewed privately. Following this, France and Switzerland have called on China to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Xinjiang to assess and allow an independent investigation into the situation. 

As of August 2020, minimal action has taken place in Xinjiang in order to help the Uighurs and this is unacceptable in the opinions of many activists and leaders. The US and the UK should be especially criticised for not interfering; both countries have an extensive history of becoming involved with foreign affairs and governments; a few examples are US interferences with Cuba, Iraq and Vietnam, as well as the UK with Afghanistan, Palestine and Iran. With many of these ‘interferences’ taking place over ‘issues of security’ and governments mistreating their people, it poses the question of why nothing has been done to stop the persecution of Uighurs, where numbers of those placed in camps has reached over 1.29 million. The international community must intervene and put an end to this suffering and hold China accountable for its crimes against humanity.

By Dana Issa

Image by: Malcolm Brown Via Flickr

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