China | At UN, concerns mount about repression of Muslim minorities


Despite Chinese denials, the internment of Uyghur and Kazakh minorities in Xinjiang has been put firmly in the Human Rights Council spotlight, with statements from governments and NGOs, including ISHR, calling urgently for the closure of internment centres and the release of those detained. 

In the months since the last Council session, the international community has received a mounting flow of credible information, including from the UN human rights mechanisms themselves, about the internment of Muslim minority Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang, in western China. 

Says Sarah M. Brooks, Asia advocate at ISHR, 'Based on this information, the government of the People’s Republic of China is engaged in an all-out assault on the human rights of its own citizens, within its borders. It is also conducting a campaign of intimidation and fear that extends well beyond its borders, and has adopted a policy of blanket denial in the face of well-founded allegations from human rights experts and responsible inquiries from other governments.'

'The Council and UN member States, individually and together, should take every opportunity to emphasise that the scale of Chinese violations is reaching a tipping point, after which business as usual is impossible. They should ensure that a government which conducts mass surveillance, mass detention and systemic policies aimed at erasing an ethno-religious identity does not enjoy impunity.'

In the current Council session, rather than engage constructively, the Chinese delegation has chastised the new High Commissioner for her reference to the review of China last month by an independent group of experts in discrimination. That panel of experts, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), issued a damning report in late August. They found sufficient reason to believe that nearly one million Turkic Muslim individuals are being held in internment camps, subject to political indoctrination, without any legal basis and without due process.

In other words, what Chinese officials have referred to (in their defence) as 'transformation through education' policies are rather, in the words of legal experts and governments, centres for 're-education' and 'political indoctrination' in what the CERD's co-rapporteur on China called 'a no-rights zone'.

At the August review, the Chinese delegation further declared that arbitrary detention or torture of ethnic minority individuals and communities did not exist. Yet in addition to the CERD report, two Special Procedures at this Council session have provided information to the contrary, as has the UN Committee against Torture in a clear assessment of China’s implementation – or rather, failure to implement – the recommendations from its 2015 review.

'Ill-treatment and torture has been documented in the centres, not to mention in prisons throughout China', says Brooks. 'To claim that it doesn't exist is - to use a common Chinese delegation parlance - "reckless and irresponsible", not to mention inappropriate for a Human Rights Council member'.

Reporting from media outlets and civil society and diaspora groups has also highlighted that Uyghur and ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens are subject to intimidation and threats even when living overseas – in Canada, Egypt, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey and the U.S. Two recent cases involving the deportation, and pending deportation, of Uyghurs from Germany and Sweden demonstrate that this is truly an issue of global concern.

The techniques of repression in Xinjiang, and the capacity for the government to get away with violations on a massive scale, were arguably piloted in Tibet under the same Chinese Communist Party chief, Chen Quanguo. Lawmakers in the U.S. are seeking to sanction Chen, and six lower-level officials, for their involvement in the camps. 

Brooks explains that the statements of concern made today by governments  - including Canada, Finland, France, Germany and the UK, as well as the EU - do send a strong message, but should not remain mere words in the Council meeting room. 

As Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have highlighted, the scale of violations is massive. Domestic actions such as targeted sanctions, suspension of deportation proceedings and building local support for Uyghur communities are essential, while a coordinated response to the situation should be squarely on the table in discussions of counter-terrorism cooperation with China by states and with the UN.

Finally, Brooks notes that the Chinese response to criticism of its policies in Xinjiang, namely denial and misdirection, are tried and true techniques that have slowed down international response to other human rights issues in the country.  For the eighth session in a row, Council members and observers took no collective action on the situation of human rights in China.  

'Although the pressing issue is Xinjiang, the resources of the Chinese government are sufficient to carry out mass internment and continue its attack on human rights defenders and independent civil society,' says Brooks.

In that regard, China has resorted to threats that scrutiny of its record here at the Council constitutes ‘interference in judicial sovereignty’ and claimed that defenders currently jailed for exercising their rights are no more than criminals. Yet China's willingness to manipulate legal standards and judicial mechanisms, and to attack those working to improve society and safeguard fundamental freedoms, makes a mockery of the government's claims to ‘rule of law’. 

And those who bear the real brunt of threats? They are not the governments sitting in the Palais des Nations in Geneva. They are lawyers like Li Yuhan, Sui Muqing, Wang Quanzhang, and Yu Wensheng; citizen journalists Huang Qi, Liu Feiyue and Zhen Jianghua; Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti; Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk; and dozens more who are deprived of liberty simply because they have worked to promote and protect human rights in China.

Watch the full statement here: 

For inquiries or more information, contact Sarah M. Brooks at s.brooks[at] or follow @sarahmcneer. ISHR's full statement to the Council can be found here

Photo credit: Ccyber5 from Wikimedia Commons


  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • United Nations
  • Committee against Torture (CAT)
  • Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • China