UN on China’s mistreatment of the Uyghurs Ethnic Group

Uyghur women work in a cloth factory in Hotan county, Xinjiang province, China. / Azamat Imanaliev/Shutterstock

A new United Nations report on modern slavery adds to the evidence of China’s maltreatment of the Uyghur ethnic group, a Muslim minority that some human rights organisations claim is being genocided.

The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Dr. Tomoya Obokata, wrote that it is “reasonable to conclude” that forced labor among ethnic minorities, including the Uyghurs, “in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing has been occurring in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China.”

Obokata recognised two state-mandated mechanisms that have contributed to Uyghur forced labour: one that detains minorities and puts them to work placements, and the other that pushes rural workers into other low-skilled, low-paid employment.

While the Chinese government maintains that the programmes give employment opportunities for minorities, the investigation found that “indicators of forced labour pointing the involuntary nature of work rendered by affected communities have been present in many cases.”

“Further, given the nature and extent of powers exercised over affected workers during forced labor, including excessive surveillance, abusive living and working conditions, restriction of movement through internment, threats, physical and/or sexual violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment, some instances may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis,” the report reads.

Uyghurs have been jailed in hundreds of “reeducation camps” in China’s Xinjiang, a thinly populated autonomous province in the country’s far west, in recent years, with estimates reaching as high as 1.8 million. Torture and political indoctrination are allegedly practised inside the facilities. Outside the camps, Uyghurs are being watched by police and face recognition technology.

For many years, China has associated Uyghur culture and religious activities with extremism and secession. The government first denied the existence of the camps, but has later defended its actions as a justifiable reaction to a national security danger.

In January 2021, the United States officially designated China’s conduct in Xinjiang as genocide.

China’s Xinjiang crackdown allegedly involves pressure to have contraceptive devices implanted, as well as complete sterilisation and systematic rape. According to a former hospital worker in the area, hospitals in the province have allegedly performed forced late-term abortions on Uyghur women and murdered newborn Uyghur infants in order to follow China’s family planning regulations. Uyghur women, who used to have some of the highest fertility rates in the nation, have seen their fertility rates plummet in recent years.

The Vatican has mostly kept mute about the Uyghurs’ oppression, however Pope Francis did characterise them as a persecuted people in a book released in 2021. The Chinese foreign ministry reacted by stating the report was false.

Two Asian cardinals and 74 other religious leaders issued a statement in August 2020 condemning China’s activities in Xinjiang, calling the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs “one of the most egregious human tragedies since the Holocaust.”

The United Nations report documented several other forms of modern-day slavery, including sexual slavery perpetrated by groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram in the Middle East and Nigeria, as well as the plight of minority women and girls in Ethiopia’s Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions who have been “subjected to rape, sexual mutilation, and other forms of sexual violence by parties to the armed conflict.”

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