Oppression of Uyghur Muslims: Human Rights Violations in Xinjiang

Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim group who are culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. They inhabit mostly the northwestern territory of Xinjiang in China. Xinjiang is an autonomous region in deference to its non-Chinese population although the level of autonomy is minimal. The approximately 11 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang are historically and culturally Muslims under the control of Chinese officials since 1949.

Thousands of Uyghurs have faced religious restrictions and persecutions in recent years. The Chinese authorities have clamped down on their rights and they are being subjected to cruelty. Draconian measures are imposed on Uyghurs to erase their Islamic and cultural identity. These measures have been justified by the authorities as necessary to counter religious radicalisation and extremism but it is evident that these measures are explicitly adopted to curtail Islam’s traditions and practices.

While Article 4 of the Chinese Constitution guarantees protection of the minorities, China has brutally exploited the ethnic minorities in the city. The various programmes and schemes are used as a tool to suppress the dissent of the people and to crack down on their religious rights. The tension between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government has been further escalated by the sinister programmes devised by the government in the name of spreading nationalism. In this article, the authors unfold the various acts adopted by the Chinese authorities to suppress the Uyghurs that breach the human rights of the ethnic minority.

Internment camps

The Reduction Camps of China are the most abominable pillar of the de-extremification policy. These camps, also known as vocational education and training centres are internment camps operated by the Xinjiang autonomous region government. These camps have been used to indoctrinate Uyghurs. As many as 3 million people is believed to have been detained in these camps. At first, Chinese officials denied the existence of such camps but now the government is portraying such camps as lawful education camps for the goal of eradicating extremism.

Leaked images captured by drones show hundreds of handcuffed and blindfolded Uyghurs prisoners being transferred by trains. It reflects the offensive propaganda of the Chinese government.

Dissolving the culture of Uyghurs

Chinese policies for the Uyghur Muslims seem to show the arduous efforts that have been made to dissolve the religion and culture of the Uyghurs by suppressing their religious freedom. China has passed a law to implement measures to sinicise Islam within the next five years. The law aims to make Islamic religion Chinese in character and is a way to clamp down on the Uyghurs’ religion. Prisoners have been coerced by the authorities to renounce their religious ideologies and ethnic identities. They have banned the parents from giving their children, Islamic names and have forced Muslims to eat pork or drink alcohol, both of which is forbidden in Islam. Muslims have been prevented from performing traditional burial rites, marriage ceremonies, growing long beards, fasting during the Ramadan, wearing hijabs and making pilgrimages to Mecca.

The government has tightened control over mosques, regarding them as incubators for Islamic “extremism” and anti-Chinese sentiment. Authorities ordered thousands of mosques to be destroyed under a pretext of “mosque rectification” in 2017. Satellite images show the destruction of mosques, the cultural and historical heritage of the Muslims. Mosques are under surveillance and the worshippers need permits to worship in them.

The right to religion is a fundamental freedom guaranteed under several treaties. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ensures the cultural rights of all people. Article 2 prohibits discrimination based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status and Article 15 ensures the cultural freedom of the people. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination also provides that everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. China is a party to all these treaties but through its policies, it appears to have grossly violated the provisions of these conventions. Article 36 of China’s Constitution states that “no state organ, public organisation, or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion” but a further proviso, has been shrewdly incorporated, which states that the state only protects normal religious practices that do not “disrupt public order, harm the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system of the state”.

Surveillance under homes

China has gone to extreme lengths in extending the surveillance within homes. Under the Pair up and Family Programme, cadres are sent to stay in the homes of minority groups in Xinjiang to monitor and indoctrinate the Muslim minority. The public servants in Xinjiang are assigned families that they must visit and stay with regularly. Families do not have the option of refusing the visits and if they denied entry to the cadres they are imprisoned or sent to the extrajudicial camps. The Programme has indeed transformed homes into prison from which there is no escape. There are allegations, that such officers, while their stay in the houses, often misbehave with the female members and sexually harass them.

Under the Xinjiang Classroom policy, the Uyghurs’ children are taken away from their families and are made to attend the schools in predominantly Han populated cities far from their native language and cultural environment.

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes “Family” as a fundamental group unit of society which is entitled to protection by the state and society. Such acts of surveillance within a person’s home infringe upon their privacy and family life. All these acts constitute an egregious human rights abuse of the Uyghurs. The pair up and family programme as well as the Xinjiang Classroom policy seems to violate Articles 12,16 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which protect the family from state interference and grant parents the right to choose education for their children. . It is likely to breach Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which offers similar protection.

Forced labour

As per a report, more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019. They are subjected to constant surveillance, forbidden from participating in religious observances and have limited freedom of movement. They live in segregated dormitories and undergo training outside working hours. It is extremely difficult for them to refuse their assignments and there is always a threat of arbitrary detention on the workers who refuse to perform the government’s assigned works.

Such acts of forced labour is likely to breach Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides for basic protections against forced labour. The government is entitled to uphold the civic and labour rights of workers. It should end its extrajudicial detention. It should ensure that everyone can freely determine the terms and conditions of their labour contracts.

Birth control

Chinese authorities are taking measures for birth controls on the Uyghurs. They seem to suppress the population of the Uyghur Muslim and are trying to ethnically cleanse out the population from the province. Draconian measures have been imposed to reduce the birth rates of Uyghurs and other minorities. The minority women in Xinjiang are subjected to pregnancy checks, intrauterine devices, unconsented sterilization and even abortions. If there is a failure to comply with the birth control measures, they are threatened with mass detentions. People are sent to detention camps for having too many children. As a result, there is a huge decline in the birth rates of Uyghur women. Birth rates in the Uyghur regions of Hotan and Kashgar plunged by more than 60% from 2015 to 2018 as per the government statistics.

Genocide is defined in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948. Article II(d) states that genocide is the imposing of measures intended to prevent births within a group. Clearly, the detrimental measures adopted by Chinese officials seem to fall within the definition of genocide and can constitute an act against humanity. The International Court of Justice has also stated that the prohibition of genocide is a peremptory norm of international law (jus cogens) and as a consequence, no derogation from it is allowed. Every country is bound by it. China is also bound by the prohibition of genocide. The measures imposed on the Uyghurs seems to violate provisions of international law and has taken the form of demographic genocide. Any such action must be punished under Article III which provides for punishment of persons committing genocide.


Shreya Srivastava and Yukta Ambastha are third-year BA LLB student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi, in India, interested in Human Rights, Arbitration and International Law.