Xinjiang, crimes against humanity and companies

Anna Triponel

September 9, 2022
Our key takeaway: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has released its report on the situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China (XUAR) which makes for grim reading. OHCHR describes how the ‘Vocational Education and Training Centres’ (VETC facilities) in XUAR came about, intended by the Chinese Government to provide an administrative track to deal with ‘minor’ cases” of ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ conduct. And then describes how these VETC facilities have been used to separate families and detain people in harsh conditions - based on being a Uyghur, or belonging to another predominantly Muslim community. And this at a large scale - with estimates of 10-20 per cent of the adult ethnic population being detained in these facilities for deradicalization’ and ‘re-education.’ The OHCHR doesn’t mince its words, and finds that the existence of these training centres, coupled with how people are treated once in them, “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” Alongside recommendations to the Chinese Government and the international community, OHCHR calls on companies to step up in their respect for human rights as called for under the UN Guiding Principles - with a specific emphasis on enhanced human rights due diligence, transparent reporting, and companies involved in the surveillance and security sector. 

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its ‘OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China’ (August 2022): 

  • Background on Xinjiang’s Vocational Education and Training Centres: The assessment delves into detail on the background in XUAR, including that “XUAR is China’s largest region, covering one-sixth of its total territory, with a population of 25.85 million. It is rich in resources such as coal, gas, oil, lithium, zinc and lead, as well as being a major source of agricultural production, such as of cotton.” Back in 1953, “over 75 per cent of the total population in the region was constituted by Uyghurs, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim, with ethnic Han Chinese accounting for seven per cent.” The latest figures are that “the Uyghur population now constitutes about 45 per cent of the region’s total and Han Chinese about 42 per cent. These shifts appear to be largely the consequence of ethnic Han migration into the western regions, including as a result of incentives provided by Government policies.” When riots broke out (in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009), the Chinese Government responded by strengthening and implementing its legal and policy framework on countering terrorism and “extremism.” This include a 2014 “‘Strike Hard’ campaign to combat terrorist threats, which it linked to religious ‘extremism’ and separatism in XUAR.” One measure put in place by the Government was ‘Vocational Education and Training Centres’ (VETC facilities) intended to provide “an administrative track [to] deal[] with more ‘minor’ cases” of ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ conduct. These VETC facilities “are facilities where individuals can be placed for ‘deradicalization’ and ‘re-education.’” For the Government, these facilities are for “‘minor’ cases that require leniency, education and rehabilitation” as opposed to “‘serious’ acts that merit punishment through the criminal justice system.” The OHCHR paper delves into the concerns with the VETC system, which include deprivations of liberty, crackdowns on individuals’ expression or manifestation of the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms, lack of due process, harsh conditions and treatment, family separations, crackdowns on religious freedoms, and discriminatory deprivations of liberty, “based on forms of ethnic, religious and cultural identity and expression.” The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination estimates between “tens of thousands to over a million” people are detained, and another analysis finds that “that around 10-20 per cent of the adult ‘ethnic population’ in these counties and townships [in XUAR] were subjected to some form of detention between 2017 and 2018.” OHCHR states that it “is not in a position to confirm estimates of total numbers of individuals affected by the VETC system. Cumulatively, however, these different sources of information support a conclusion that the system of VETC facilities was intended and operated on a wide scale spanning the geographic entirety of the region.”
  • OHCHR’s assessment, including regard to crimes against humanity: OHCHR finds that “[s]erious human rights violations have been committed in XUAR in the context of the Government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-‘extremism’ strategies. The implementation of these strategies, and associated policies in XUAR has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights. These patterns of restrictions are characterized by a discriminatory component, as the underlying acts often directly or indirectly affect Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities.” The Government’s anti-terrorism “framework, which is vulnerable to discriminatory application, has in practice led to the large-scale arbitrary deprivation of liberty of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim communities in XUAR in so-called VETC and other facilities, at least between 2017 and 2019.” In addition: “The treatment of persons held in the system of so-called VETC facilities is of equal concern. Allegations of patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention, are credible, as are allegations of individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.” The OHCHR finds that from an international criminal law perspective, “[t]he extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
  • Recommendations for companies: The OHCHR underscores that the “human rights situation in XUAR … requires urgent attention by the Government, the United Nations intergovernmental bodies and human rights system, as well as the international community more broadly.” The office provides a number of recommendations to the Government of China, the business community and the international community. Specifically, “OHCHR recommends to the business community that it: (i) Takes all possible measures to meet the responsibility to respect human rights across activities and business relationships as set out the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, including through enhanced human rights due diligence, and report on this transparently; and (ii) Strengthens human rights risk assessment by companies involved in the surveillance and security sector, including whether products and services could lead to or contribute to adverse human rights impacts, including on the rights to privacy, freedom of movement, and the respect of non-discrimination.”

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