Uyghurs in China: Forced labor and torture in camps – urgent need for action

Guest contribution: The world must put pressure on China for human rights violations against Uyghurs

In the Xinjiang region of China, the Communist Party has been actively cracking down on and suppressing Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. Inhuman conditions prevail in internment camps and inmates have already died there. There is an urgent need for action: the international community must put pressure on Beijing.

Shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took its first steps towards annexing the northwestern region of Xinjiang, which the Uyghurs call East Turkestan or the Uyghur Autonomous Region. In the decades that followed, the Chinese Communist Party displaced thousands of Uyghurs to labor camps, and many thousands more were forced into exile. Seventy years later, Beijing is continuing its strategic move to eradicate the religious, linguistic and cultural identity of the Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities.

About the authors

Dolkun Isa is the President of the Uighur World Congress and Vice President of the Organization of Unrepresented Nations and Peoples (UNPO). After being subjected to political persecution by the Chinese government, Isa fled China in 1994 and applied for asylum in Europe. In 2006 he became a German citizen. Since then he has represented Uyghur human rights issues at the UN Human Rights Council, the European Parliament, European governments and international human rights organizations.

Robin S. Quinville has been chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy Berlin since June 2020. She joined the United States Foreign Service in 1988. From 2015 to 2017 Quinville headed the Western European Affairs Unit at the US State Department. Prior to her current position, she was a US State Department Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2017-2018).

Uyghurs in internment camps: forced labor, torture, sexual abuse

In the northwestern Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party is actively cracking down on and suppressing Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz and members of other ethnic minorities. One way of doing this is by mass arrests. As of April 2017, over a million people have been in internment camps.

Survivors tell harrowing stories of torture and other unimaginable ill-treatment in these camps. It is required that one give up one’s ethnic identity, religious beliefs, and the pursuit of one’s cultural and religious practices in the name of compliance with government.

Detention can last for months or even years without procedural and substantive protection or family contacts. Deaths while incarcerated are repeatedly reported and allegations of forced labor, torture, sexual abuse, forced sterilization and inhumane conditions are made.

Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong: Ethical minorities are oppressed

This abuse is not limited to the Uyghur ethnic group. There are increasing reports from Tibet that in 2020 the Chinese Communist Party forced over 500,000 Tibetans to go to military-style training centers that experts say resemble labor camps. In Hong Kong, the recently passed national security law endangers the rights of freedom and autonomy enshrined in the Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” principle.

The authorities have already used the new security law to arrest peaceful demonstrators and continue cracking down on activists who campaign for more democracy. From Tibet and Xinjiang to Inner Mongolia to Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party is expanding its influence and taking action against ethnic minorities, threatening their critics and violating human rights with impunity. These violations go beyond China’s borders when Beijing pressures refugees through family members.

Time to act: “Determined to speak with one voice”

Governments and civil society must now work together to hold Beijing accountable. We need to speak with determination and with one voice. We all need to keep raising awareness of these issues, taking concrete action to defend universal human rights, and upholding the international framework that has made peace and prosperity spread across the world for decades.

The United States and the World Uyghur Congress are committed to the common goal of creating a global response. The United States and other like-minded countries are committed to upholding human rights and dignity. For example, the US government has imposed visa restrictions, export and import restrictions, and financial sanctions against individuals in the Chinese government responsible for human rights abuses.

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The World Uyghur Congress sensitizes the public to this every day and advocates for the families and ethnic groups who still live in the Uyghur Autonomous Region. The World Uyghur Congress acts as the voice and advocate for the millions of Uyghurs and vulnerable groups under the control of Beijing. The World Congress and other organizations that campaign for change across China tirelessly point out discrepancies, explain connections and, above all, tell the harrowing stories of the victims.

The international community is responding to appeals from the Uyghur ethnic group. The US Congress recently passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act to warn companies against the use of products made in Uyghur territory or elsewhere in China, using forced labor or other human rights violations. The German Bundestag is also pushing for a new law that would oblige companies to comply with human rights standards when producing abroad.

The way forward: putting pressure on Beijing

We all have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable communities. We rely on information from organizations such as the World Uyghur Congress and must act accordingly to refute Beijing’s false narratives about the Uyghur ethnic group and to generate stronger international pressure for China to stop its repressive measures.

We encourage like-minded governments to review their own policies and consider all diplomatic, economic, and similar means to put pressure on Beijing and all institutions directly linked to violations in the Uyghur region, Tibet or Hong Kong. We encourage other members of the international community to do the same.

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