The international community is legally obliged to take action on China’s alleged abuse of Uighur and other Turkic minorities, a prominent group of British lawyers has said, suggesting nations use sanctions, corporate accountability mechanisms, and international treaties preventing racial discrimination to pressure Beijing.
China’s refusal to be held legally accountable for the widespread and documented allegations did not absolve the global community of responsibility, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) said in a report released on Wednesday.
“All states, including China, have unequivocally accepted that slavery and racial discrimination, torture and genocide are prohibited,” it said.
“They have committed to not carry out those proscribed acts; they have committed to their prevention; and they have committed to punishment of perpetrators where they have found individuals to have committed those proscribed acts. There can be no derogation from those commitments.”
The BHRC briefing paper, written by some of Britain’s leading human rights barristers, underlines a growing push for concrete action against China’s crackdown in Xinjiang. It also provides some of the most specific recommendations yet for states to pressure Beijing into meeting legal obligations to its own people, and to ensure that other states do not breach their obligations by failing to act.
The report is the strongest intervention so far from the British legal community at a time when the UK and the international community have become increasingly vocal in condemning Beijing’s measures in Xinjiang.
“The UK must take all available measures to prevent and seek to end human rights violations,” it said.
Abuse and mistreatment of the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang has been extensively documented but strenuously denied by Beijing, which claims its policies are to counter terrorism.
The evidence of mass detention in “re-education camps”, surveillance and restrictions on religious and cultural beliefs amounts to cultural genocide, critics have said. There have also been reports of forced sterilisation of Uighur women, alleged efforts to curb the growth of the Uighur population which human rights investigators say provide the clearest evidence yet of genocide.
On Sunday, the UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses. The US government recently announced Magnitsky style sanctions against Chinese officials over the allegations, and on Tuesday France demanded independent observers be allowed into Xinjiang.
Schona Jolly QC, chair of the BHRC, told the Guardian the international community could not claim ignorance in the face of the evidence.
“Governments must take concrete and urgent steps towards accountability and redress before an entire community is devastated through the deliberate, targeted and systematic abuse which has been credibly alleged,” she said.
“Courageous investigative journalism and testimony by survivors and witnesses has exposed grave allegations of crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which the Chinese state continues to deny,” she added.
The BHRC report said other countries should use all available means, including international law, to call upon China to cease human rights violations, and to allow and support independent investigations into the allegations of “genocide, murder, extermination, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment, and enslavement”, and to prosecute offenders.
It recommended the use of Magnitsky-style sanctions on state and non-state individuals who were reasonably suspected of being involved in serious human rights violations.
Nation states should also create and maintain international bodies to carry out the investigations, and use “all available offices and legal means” to prevent violations, and to investigate, apprehend and punish alleged perpetrators of violations against Uighur and Turkic Muslim populations.
China is a party to several international human rights and criminal law treaties prevention discrimination, genocide, torture and slavery. China has placed numerous reservations on them which prevent the treaties being fully enforced by other states. However the BHRC suggested other countries could use the UN’s convention on the elimination of racial discrimination, which had no such legal obstacles.
“The global community is not absolved of responsibility because the Chinese state has precluded itself from being found to be legally accountable under most of the usual international legal avenues,” Jolly told the Guardian.
“States must use all diplomatic means and good offices to pursue accountability.”
It said there were also domestic avenues available including requiring that international corporations that operate in or are linked to Xinjiang make sure they don’t contribute to the commission of rights violations.
Numerous high profile international brands have been linked to Chinese manufacturers alleged to be involved in enforced labour programs, where Uighur men and women are allegedly subjected to highly coercive conditions, including constant surveillance, the banning of religious observance, limited freedom of movement, segregated dormitory living, and mandatory ‘ideological training’.
The Chinese government says the programs are designed to address labour shortages in factories and to alleviate poverty in Xinjiang. It denies that people are force into the work.