On 24 November 2022, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued a set of recommendations on the human rights situation in the Uyghur Region (Xinjiang) as part of its “Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedure” . The adoption of such a document, known as a “decision” and intended to prevent “large-scale violations of human rights”, is rare: only two have been adopted in the past four years, most recently in 2019.
While building on its own analysis stemming from the 2018 China review, the Committee also referred to existing documentation and evidence from across the United Nations system, notably a June 2020 joint statement by more than 40 human rights experts from the United Nations; the findings of the International Labor Organization on Uyghur forced labor in June 2022; and the evaluation of human rights in Xinjiang by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The latter report, released on August 31, 2022, concluded that possible crimes against humanity had been committed in Xinjiang and that “the conditions remain for serious violations to continue and recur.”
The Committee urges China to implement the recommendations contained in the OHCHR assessment report, as well as to:
- “immediately investigate all allegations of human rights violations in [Xinjiang] including those of torture, ill-treatment, sexual assault, forced labour, enforced disappearances and deaths in custody’;
- ‘immediately release all individuals arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in [Xinjiang]’ whether in internment camps (so-called ‘VETC’) or ‘other detention facilities’;
- “to provide relatives of detained or missing persons with detailed information on their status and well-being”;
- “immediately cease all intimidation and retaliation against Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim communities, the diaspora and those who speak out in their defense, both domestically and abroad”;
- “undertake a comprehensive review of its legal framework governing national security, counter-terrorism and minority rights in [Xinjiang]’ to ensure they comply with China’s legally binding obligations; And
- ensuring that “adequate and effective remedies and reparations” are provided to victims.
This is a decision of great importance by the committee: it reiterates the most pressing issues regarding the abuses against the Uyghurs and the Turkish people, including against the diaspora community. It is particularly important to underline the responsibility of states to cooperate to end these abuses.
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress
The committee of 18 experts is tasked with monitoring compliance with the rights enshrined in the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the first of the nine international “fundamental” human rights treaties of the United Nations, by states that have ratified it, which includes China. CERD’s review of China in August 2018 was the first time that UN experts raised the alarm over the mass detention of Uyghurs, prompting since then serious and growing concerns and actions from governments across the country. the world.
In their decision, the 18 experts of the committee remain “alarmed by allegations of torture, forced labour, sexual assault, arbitrary detention” as well as by “policies and practices leading to forced displacement, separation of families and disruption of human contact” which they cause ” particular suffering for the affected Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim communities.” They recalled the “discriminatory nature” of the “serious and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights” affecting Uyghurs and Muslim minorities.
The Committee pays particular attention to the Xinjiang Police Archives, a database of thousands of leaked images, spreadsheets and other police documents that expose “the extent and nature of government policy towards Uyghurs.”
In light of the seriousness of the ICERD violations, the Committee has decided to do so Refer the situation to the attention of the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, George Okoth-Obbo. Okoth-Obbo is responsible for leading the political and operational development of the Responsibility to Protect, a global political commitment to prevent and stop genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. This is the first time the Committee has brought an issue to the attention of the United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protectto which Okoth-Obbo belongs.
We particularly welcome the referral of the committee to the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect to assess the situation through an atrocity prevention framework and urge governments to respond accordingly.
Peter Irwin, Senior Program Officer for Advocacy and Communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project
A legal obligation for states to act
Since 2018, detailed evidence and repeated calls to action across the United Nations system have prompted a growing number of states to take class action over gross rights violations in the Uyghur region and in China more broadly. In September, the Human Rights Council failed by three votes to adopt a resolution convening a comprehensive debate on human rights in Xinjiang.
On Oct. 31, 50 Canadian-led governments endorsed the UN’s Xinjiang report as an “independent and authoritative assessment” and urged China to implement its recommendations, in a joint statement to the UN General Assembly. The 50 countries also echoed calls to “release all persons arbitrarily detained” and “clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing relatives and facilitate safe contact and reunification”. Similar statements were made by France on behalf of 43 countries in October 2021 and by the Netherlands on behalf of 47 countries at the Human Rights Council in June this year. Canada’s appeal, widely endorsed by Western governments, has been joined in particular by the Muslim countries Turkiye, Somalia and Albania, and a handful of African, Latin American and Pacific states.
There is no more excuse for governments to “remain neutral”: the UN Human Rights Office has spoken, 50 independent UN experts have spoken, the UN Committee of Experts on Racial Discrimination has spoken. Governments must not only support global action to end the violations, but also protect Uyghur victims and activists abroad from harassment and reprisals.
Phil Lynch, executive director of ISHR
CERD’s decision further increases the pressure on the international community to obtain a response commensurate with the seriousness of the rights violations affecting the Uyghur people. The 18 experts in particular ‘remind all states of theirs responsibility to cooperate to bring an end to any serious violation of human rights obligations by lawful means‘ as required by international law. Serious violations concern gross or systematic violations of mandatory norms of international law – those which do not derogate under any circumstances – such as the prohibition of racial discrimination, the prohibition of torture or the prohibition of slavery.
The committee goes one step further by emphasizing that governments have not only a moral obligation but also a legal duty to act to prevent and protect vulnerable populations from massive human rights violations – in this case, to end the persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkish Muslims.
Raphael Viana David, ISHR China and Latin America Attorney
Governments also have a duty to protect the rights of Uyghurs and other victims and activists in exile on their territory from new forms of transnational repression. Indeed, CERD remains “alarmed by the alleged patterns of intimidation and threats against members of the diaspora communities and those who speak publicly”.
According to an assessment of UN documentation compiled by the ISHR, China’s human rights situation has reached a threshold that requires prompt action by the Human Rights Council.
In the light with objective criteria for action by the Human Rights Council, ISHR calls for:
- All governments to support the adoption of a resolution establishing a UN mandate to monitor and report on human rights in China to the Human Rights Council;
- High Commissioner Volker Türk will hold a public intersessional briefing to present the findings of this office’s Xinjiang report, and use all channels and opportunities, publicly and privately, to urge China to implement his recommendations;
- The Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect to exercise his early warning mandate, including by informing the Secretary-General, United Nations Member States and the Security Council, bringing the situation to the attention of all relevant United Nations agencies, convening high-level events and including the issue in its annual report to the General Assembly.