While atrocity crimes — and the pursuit for accountability — in Ukraine have dominated global attention in the last year, momentum has continued to build in seeking accountability for China’s crimes against the Uyghurs and other minority groups. Most of this progress has been made at the state level, including legal cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction, atrocity determinations finding that genocide and crimes against humanity are ongoing, and efforts to exclude Chinese goods made with forced labor from domestic markets. Although this momentum has been slow and not without setbacks, it has also been steady, strengthening the record of Beijing’s crimes against the Uyghurs and the overall case for accountability.

A set of surveillance cameras at a busy crossroad in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital in China, on July 20, 2010. (The New York Times)
A set of surveillance cameras at a busy crossroad in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital in China, on July 20, 2010. (The New York Times)

Building on this progress will require sustained international support and partnership, particularly to civil society-led accountability efforts. Beijing benefits not only from the rapidly evolving news cycle but also from the passage of time, making consistent assistance and attention — including investigations and documentation — critical to delivering accountability.

International Accountability Efforts — and their Limitations

It has been nearly a decade since China began its systematic campaign of human rights abuses against the Uyghur population — a minority ethnic group that has been targeted by Beijing for practicing Islam — and other vulnerable minority groups in its northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Over one million Uyghurs have been imprisoned in “re-education centers” and subjected to forced labor, torture, rape and sterilization. The United States and several like-minded states have determined based on the scope and scale of these crimes that they constitute genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs.

Washington and the international community have taken a number of measures to draw attention to the ongoing atrocities and to hold China accountable. These efforts have been complemented by the efforts of Uyghur civil society, who have pursued accountability through both multilateral and domestic institutions, including domestic courts. Despite this progress, Beijing has shown no sign of unwinding its policies toward the Uyghurs.

In late August last year, the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its long-awaited report assessing human rights concerns in XUAR, finding significant evidence that Beijing is committing crimes against humanity. The report was published just a few minutes before High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s four-year term officially ended on September 1. China, which took extraordinary measures to limit the scope of the report and delay its release, forcefully dismissed the report as a U.S. plot and claimed it exceeded the OHCHR’s mandate.

Despite the report’s conclusions, many observers were critical of the quiet, last-minute release, suggesting the approach sought to placate Beijing and detracted from the findings of the report. Bachelet’s successor, Volker Turk, has largely avoided any direct criticisms of Beijing, opting for a quiet diplomatic approach, rather than public condemnations and accountability efforts. This approach has raised similar concerns for advocates.

Beijing continues to use its vast influence to manipulate U.N. processes and to ensure that its allies avoid public acknowledgement of the persecution of the Uyghurs. Following the release of the OHCHR report, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted down a motion brought forward in October by the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to hold debate on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, marking only the second time in 16 years that the council rejected a motion. The rejection was condemned by Uyghur activist groups — many of whom helped lead advocacy efforts around the resolution — who called it a major setback for accountability efforts and the credibility of the Human Rights Council.

Among the member states that rejected the motion were Qatar, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, members of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) with strong ties to Beijing. This demonstrated an alarming lack of solidarity from Muslim majority countries that are quick to condemn much less consequential forms of discrimination against Muslims in the West. In March 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended a meeting of the OIC in Islamabad. While the meeting concluded with a resolution condemning the oppression of Muslims in specific countries and the rise of Islamophobia in the West, there was no mention of the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang or abroad.

Despite China’s influence over the U.N.’s political bodies, some U.N. mechanisms and member states have continued to criticize Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs. On March 6, the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights released its findings on Beijing’s progress in implementing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Among the findings was that Beijing’s discrimination against the Uyghurs was severe and systematic, including forced labor; large-scale, arbitrary deprivation of liberty; and coercive family planning policies. The committee also called on Beijing to immediately end violations of human rights and dismantle systems of forced labor in Xinjiang.

Not only were these recommendations critical to further developing a U.N. record of findings on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, the committee’s review process provided an important opportunity for advocates to publicly pressure Beijing. Uyghur and international human rights advocacy organizations including the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and the International Service for Human Rights submitted civil society reports on China’s progress in implementing the covenant presenting arguments that Beijing’s conduct toward the Uyghurs constitutes forced labor and mass atrocities.

Member states have also used U.N. fora to draw attention to Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs. At the U.N.’s first-ever International Day to Combat Islamophobia on March 15, which Chinese officials also attended, U.S Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, “… the Chinese government has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.

Strengthening State’s Judicial and Legislative Records

Given the slow progress of accountability efforts at the U.N. level, members of the Uyghur diaspora have increasingly sought recourse through domestic forums, with some notable momentum in recent months. In August 2022, the WUC and the UHRP filed a criminal complaint in the Federal Criminal Court of Buenos Aires alleging that Beijing was committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs. The complaint was filed under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows the Argentine courts to hear cases related to international crimes — including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — regardless of where the crimes were committed. A similar investigation has been opened by Argentine authorities into the Myanmar government for crimes committed against the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. The complaint triggered a preliminary investigation by the court, which may choose to open a broader investigation into China’s treatment of the Uyghurs based on its findings. These efforts have received international support, including an amicus brief submitted by international experts in January 2023.

Additionally, in October 2022, a hearing was held at the High Court of Justice in London on a 2021 complaint filed by the WUC that the UK government had failed to meet its obligations under the Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act of 1897 and the Proceeds of Crime Act of 2002 by failing to thoroughly investigate imports of Chinese-produced cotton products to ensure that they were not made with forced labor. The hearing was the first time that a court has considered issues related to Uyghur forced labor. While the court ultimately rejected the WUC’s argument, finding that it did not meet the evidentiary standards for a criminal complaint, it acknowledged the problem of the widespread use of forced labor in China and the need for a solution that protected the rights of Uyghurs. This statement in itself will provide credibility to future litigation efforts. WUC announced plans to appeal the decision in March 2023.

In addition, Uyghur activists have worked tirelessly to advocate to domestic legislatures, including participating in legislative and public hearings on the experiences of Uyghurs harmed by Beijing. These hearings have allowed advocates, victims and survivors to share their experiences and to have then enshrined in the legislative record. These efforts provide critical visibility to the plight of the Uyghurs in forums that are less likely to be politically manipulated by Beijing. Further, many of the legislative efforts to advance accountability for crimes against the Uyghurs are starting to bear fruit. The United States has made considerable progress in implementing the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act (UFLPA), which established a rebuttable presumption that any goods manufactured wholly or in part in the XUAR were made with forced labor. This includes the launch of a Customs and Border Patrol resource page on the UFLPA, as well as a public dashboard detailing the number of shipments of Chinese goods prohibited from entering U.S. markets.

Moving Accountability Forward

Each of these efforts has contributed to advancing accountability for the Uyghurs. To ensure that accountability efforts continue, the international community should take the following steps:

At the international level:

  • Continue to use treaty-body reporting processes to promote awareness of Beijing’s crimes against the Uyghurs. For instance, China will undergo its Universal Periodic Review — a process where U.N. member states can view of the human rights record of all other states — in early 2024, providing a critical opportunity for international actors and advocates to advance concerns over the rights of Uyghurs.
  • Continue to raise the issue of the Uyghurs through U.N. bodies. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s statement was notable in driving attention to the Uyghur crisis. The United States and like-minded actors should continue to seek opportunities to publicly raise these concerns, such as putting out a statement on Uyghur Genocide Recognition Day on December 9.
  • Continue efforts to strengthen the coalition of like-minded actors in the U.N. General Assembly working to press Beijing on its treatment of the Uyghurs, in particular among states in Africa, East and South Asia, and the Middle East where Beijing’s influence is strong.

At the state level:

  • Support Uyghur civil society’s efforts to advocate, to share publicly the experiences of Uyghur victims and survivors, and to remain resilient in the face of Beijing’s transnational repression tactics, aimed at intimidating and discrediting them.
  • Support diaspora-led efforts to seek justice for Uyghurs through universal jurisdiction claims, strengthening the judicial record of Beijing’s crimes against the Uyghurs.
  • Continue to provide forums for the Uyghurs to share their experiences, through hearings and other public events similar to the recent hearing conducted by the House Select Committee on the Chinese Community Party.
  • Continue to pursue or implement prohibitions on forced labor, such as the UFLPA and the EU’s proposed ban on goods produced with forced labor, to impose economic consequences on Beijing for its treatment of the Uyghurs.

With little incentive to recognize the crimes committed against the Uyghurs or to submit to processes of accountability, time is on Beijing’s side. Still progress has been made and the international community should continue to shine the spotlight on China’s abuses of the Uyghurs and other minorities in XUAR. Beyond more traditional accountability efforts, there are other ways to support this beleaguered population. One way is to support efforts to promote and preserve Uyghur culture in the face of China’s efforts at erasure. This could mean providing forums to showcase Uyghur art, music, fashion, food and history. While China plays the waiting game, the international community can help keep the Uyghur issue alive amid the elusive pursuit for accountability.

Related Publications

Huawei’s Expansion in Latin America and the Caribbean: Views from the Region

Huawei’s Expansion in Latin America and the Caribbean: Views from the Region

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

By: Parsifal D’Sola Alvarado

Since its founding in Shenzhen, China, in 1987, Huawei has grown into one of the world’s major information and communications technology companies, but its ties to China’s government and military have been regarded by US officials as a potential risk to national security. Latin American and Caribbean countries, however, have embraced the company for the economic and technological benefits it provides. This report explains the stark contrast between Huawei’s standing in the United States and its neighbors to the south.

Type: Special Report

Global Policy

The Indo-Pacific’s Newest Minilateral Emerges

The Indo-Pacific’s Newest Minilateral Emerges

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

By: Brian Harding;  Haroro Ingram

Last week, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. stepped foot in the Oval Office for the second time in a year. Joining Marcos this time was Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the leader of the United States’ most important ally in Asia and, arguably, the world. The Philippines has long been among a second rung of regional allies, so this first-ever trilateral summit marks Manila’s entrance as a leading U.S. ally working to maintain order and prevent Chinese revisionism in East Asia.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

China’s Alternative Approach to Security Along the Mekong River

China’s Alternative Approach to Security Along the Mekong River

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

By: Narut Charoensri

Speaking about “the rise” or the “emerging role” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) makes little sense these days. The country is no longer simply transforming in a major power, but rather has achieved a level of influence that many other major countries around the world perceive as a threat economically, politically and militarily.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

Whither NATO at 75?

Whither NATO at 75?

Thursday, April 11, 2024

By: Ambassador William B. Taylor;  Mirna Galic

NATO marked its 75th anniversary last week at a celebration in Brussels. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has injected the alliance with new life and resolve, the 32-member collective security pact is also wrestling with its future in a world of growing great power competition. In 2022, NATO formally identified for the first time China as a challenge to its interests and collective security. As NATO continues to support Ukraine and look to future global challenges, it also has internal issues to address, ranging from individual member defense spending to the problems posed by the need for collective decision-making among 32 members.

Type: Question and Answer

Global Policy

View All Publications