Available evidence of Chinese state actions establishes a “credible case” that authorities have committed crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide against Uyghurs in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), experts said in a legal opinion Monday.
Lawyers at Essex Court Chambers in London published the opinion citing reports that since 2017, authorities in the XUAR have detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps as part of a “de-extremification” scheme, the rights group Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) said in a statement. Hundreds of thousands are believed to be engaged in forced labor both inside and outside the camps.
According to GLAN, which commissioned the opinion in partnership with the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), the lawyers determined there is a credible case that “crimes against humanity are taking place including enslavement, imprisonment, torture, rape, enforced sterilization, enforced disappearance and persecution.”
The opinion also finds that “the crime of genocide is occurring, as there is evidence of an intent to destroy the Uyghur population as such, including through a pattern of Chinese State-mandated conduct.”
Such conduct includes the infliction of serious physical and mental harm to Uyghurs in detention, measures to prevent births in the Uyghur community, and the forcible transfer of Uyghur children outside of their communities, GLAN said.
Additionally, the opinion concludes that there is a credible case of crimes against humanity and genocide against Chinese President Xi Jinping, Deputy Secretary of the Xinjiang People’s Congress Zhu Hailun, and XUAR Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, as well as potentially others.
Unlike a court ruling, a legal opinion is not binding. However, it can be used as the basis of legal action.
‘Intent to destroy Uyghurs’
GLAN called the significance of the opinion “far reaching,” noting that if a court reaches the same conclusions, it could lead to political and legal consequences for China and the officials deemed responsible for abuses in the XUAR.
Additionally, the opinion provides stronger support for national governments to designate China’s policies in the region as crimes against humanity and genocide, and to take action to investigate and prevent any ongoing atrocities.
GLAN noted that the opinion also puts pressure on international business enterprises which may be complicit in such crimes because their supply chains are linked to forced labor in the XUAR.
GLAN legal officer Dearbhla Minogue told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the finding should convince U.K. parliamentarians of the need to designate China’s abuses in the XUAR genocide and crimes against humanity.
“They really need to put party politics aside and just step up and do whatever is necessary for Uyghurs to have a route to a judicial determination on the question of genocide,” she said.
“This is a legal issue as much as it’s a political issue. It’s an objective question: Is China carrying out a genocide and crimes against humanity or not? And this is why we went for these extremely high profile, very, very independent, neutral legal experts to answer this question. We provided the sort of legal aspect to support the Uyghurs’ quest for accountability.”
Siobhan Allen, another legal officer with GLAN, said that from a global perspective, “governments and businesses can no longer stand back and avoid taking action to ensure that they are not complicit in allowing these horrific crimes to continue.”
Rahima Mahmut, U.K. director of the WUC, said the finding makes clear that “there is an intent to destroy Uyghurs.”
“Governments globally have a duty to take action to protect Uyghurs, to prevent genocide and to hold to account those in the Chinese Government responsible for these crimes,” she said.
“Corporations operating in the Uyghur region have a responsibility reevaluate their relationship with the Chinese government. To turn a blind eye to the truth is to be complicit in the genocide of my people.”
The legal opinion comes weeks after former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—on his last full day as top U.S. diplomat—said Chinese policies in the XUAR aim for “the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group.”
Pompeo said he had determined China is “committing genocide and crimes against humanity” in the XUAR against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups, and that Beijing and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “must be held to account.”
The new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has endorsed the designation, suggesting that President Joe Biden’s administration will pursue a more forceful approach in holding China accountable for its abuses in the region.
Emily Horne, the spokesperson for Biden’s National Security Council, recently told the Washington Examiner that “President Biden has called the oppression of the Uyghurs a genocide, and he stands against it in the strongest possible terms.”
Chinese officials have said the camps are voluntary centers for “vocational training” that protect the region against “religious extremism” and “terrorism,” but reporting by RFA and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
Last week, when asked to respond to the U.S. designation, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called on Washington to show “solid evidence” to back up its claims about the situation in the XUAR.
“We urge it to respect facts and stop making baseless allegations and irresponsible or even ill-intentioned remarks,” Wang told a regularly scheduled press briefing in Beijing.
China experts recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the most effective actions Washington can take include hitting China with economic sanctions in addition to measures blocking trade and travel placed on Chinese officials and companies in the XUAR last year by the Trump administration.
Last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO) to detain all cotton products and tomatoes from the XUAR at the country’s ports of entry, saying that the agency had identified indicators of forced labor including debt bondage, restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, and abusive living and working conditions.
The U.S. imported U.S. $9 billion worth of cotton products and $10 million of tomatoes from China over the past year, according to the CBP. Most of China’s cotton is from the XUAR.
The European Union and Britain have trade deals pending with China, but experts have cautioned that the U.S. designation should give the relevant parliaments pause.
In Monday’s statement announcing the legal opinion, Peter Irwin, Senior Program Officer for Advocacy & Communications at the UHRP, warned the international community that “history will not treat them kindly if they favor business in a time of genocide.”
“Whether it’s the 2022 Beijing Olympics or Volkswagen building vehicles a few miles from an internment camp, governments and global businesses will need to reassess their relationship with Beijing until this kind of treatment ends,” he said.
GLAN’s Director, Gearóid Ó Cuinn, said that businesses “can no longer turn a blind eye” to the situation in the XUAR in their pursuit of profit.
“Given the gravity of the situation Governments need to act ensure that businesses are held responsible for failing to fully extricate their supply chains from Xinjiang.”
Reported by Nur’iman Abdurashid for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.