Column - One Step Forward, 80 Years Backwards: The Story of Uighurs in China

By Ahlam Arif


History’s most appalling and tragic systematic persecution of the Jewish ethnic group by the Nazis across Europe occurred almost 80 years ago, during World War II. It would seem a long time has passed when such ideas and policies that tortured and degraded minority groups dominated the better part of the 1900s. Due to international treaties and regulations put in place, the fundamental rights and interests of individuals have been guaranteed. It would appear that modern society is incapable of disturbing that peace or reinstating the degree of human degradation and persecution that took place in 1940. However, this is not the circumstance in Xinjiang, where there are approximately over 3 million Uighurs detained in concentration camps, only a step away from repeating history. 

Xinjiang is an autonomous region located in the northwest of China, where about 11 million Uighurs – a Muslim ethnic minority group resides. Over 3 million Uighur Muslims have been unlawfully detained in the so-called ‘Re-Education’ camps while the rest have been heavily monitored by the Chinese government. They have been persecuted for the sole purpose of practising their religion which China denies. Various degrading and discriminatory treatment has flagged substantial violations of China’s human rights obligations through the United Nations. It is a signatory to conventions like the International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial DiscriminationUniversal Declaration of Human Rights, and Convention against Torture and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Despite China being a signatory of various UN human rights conventions to promote the welfare of the citizens and to enable them to practice their religious beliefs, they have been actively violating this duty. One amongst many is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that China has ratified and forms part of its constitution granting the essential right to freedom of religion. This has been recognized as the foundation on which the international human rights law operates. China has implemented unjustifiable measures such as sterilization, forced labour, subjected to sleep deprivation and forceful prohibition of Islamic practises like observing fast during the holy month of Ramadan or growing a beard. China has deprived the ethnic minority of the Xinjiang region of the basic human rights and common human dignity guaranteed through their constitution. In an attempt to reduce the population of this minority group concealing it as counterterrorism, China has unlawfully detained and tortured the Uighurs. 

 As a result of years of conflict with the Uighurs, China has taken severe measures in an extreme attempt to exterminate the existence of the Uighur minority. It justifies holding Uighurs against their will in camps for the prevention of extremist notions and to eliminate any potential terrorist activities. These confinement camps have been established to forcefully eradicate their religious beliefs and practices. The detainees have not been charged nor given the right to a fair trial while they are consistently being persecuted. The United States have described this to be a genocide of the Uighurs, masked from the world. China is also a signatory to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention defines genocide as a coordinated plan to destroy a group identifiable through race, religion, or ethnicity. The Uighurs are subjected to intolerable abuse like electrocution, rape, physical violence for failing to abandon their faith. This mass mistreatment, by activists, has been associated with sharing resemblance to the holocaust.

UN countries have put forward their concerns on the matter for serious human rights breaches and substantially undermining the peace and security by persecuting the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The UK has also voiced its concerns over the mistreatment stating it to be a crime against humanity. Fear of retaliation as a consequence may hinder real change and progress due to the political and economic dominance of China. This is worsened as media influence over the matter has been scarcely limited and shifts the focus from millions of Uighurs massively persecuted for their religious identity. Awareness is a prerequisite for action and which has been proven through the Black Lives Matter movement where the world protested against discrimination bringing significant changes. As we took a step forward with the BLM movement, similar is possible in China if attention is brought to the harm and mistreatment suffered by the Uighurs in Xinjiang. However, with a lack of awareness and a subsequent failure to take action, we may as well be traveling back 80 years ago.