Genocide in China: The International Laws Violated

In the first article of a two-part series ahead of the Criminal Justice Network's event on the persecution of Uighur Muslims, Charlie Harris discusses the international laws broken by the Chinese Government

‘One of the most egregious human tragedies since the Holocaust.’

Those were the haunting words issued by over 70 world faith leaders, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, calling for a reckoning of accountability over the persecution of Chinese Muslims. No such reckoning has occurred. Rather, life for the Uighur Muslims is daily getting worse.

The atrocities being carried out in Xinjiang province are well documented and this article is not a catalogue of Chinese crimes against the Uighur people, however necessary one may be. Instead, it will focus precisely on documenting how China’s persecution of the Uighur people has violated international law. It is not an abstract violation of morality, but plain and simple breaking of the law and the committing of crimes.


China has ratified the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), therefore committing itself to the upholding and protection of the following rights:

Article 12 of this treaty protects one’s ‘privacy, family, home or correspondence’ from ‘arbitrary interference.’

Children of Uighur detainees and exiles are being forcibly separated from their parents and transferred to dozens of de facto orphanages in the Xinjiang region.

Article 16 guarantees that all people, ‘without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion,’ will have the right to ‘found a family.’

This right is violated by China’s forced sterilisation and involuntary birth control campaign, subjecting 80% of women of child-bearing age to intrusive birth prevention surgeries.

Article 18 protects ‘the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ and to freely manifest ‘religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’

Leaked documents have shown that a primary aim of the Chinese detention camps is to achieve total ‘education transformation’ regarding detainees’ behaviour, beliefs, and languages.

Article 19 reserves the ‘right to freedom of opinion and expression.’

Another disturbing aim revealed by the leaked documents was the desire to destroy ‘vague understandings, negative attitudes or even feelings of resistance’ of all detainees.

Article 20 allows ‘freedom of peaceful assembly and association.’

China’s 2015 National Security Law explicitly infringes these rights in the name of combating ‘extremism,’ under the pretence that religious gatherings are ‘endangering national security.’

Article 26 guarantees parents the right to choose the ‘kind of education that shall be given to their children.’

Xinjiang’s schools seek to immerse children in patriotic education, punish the use of the Uighur language by staff, and encourage students to spy on their parents.


China is also a signatory of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Article 1 of this treaty reserves the right to ‘self-determination’ of a people’s ‘political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.’

Authorities have interred over one million Muslims in camps, forcing them to renounce their religious and ethnic identities and swear allegiance to the Communist Party.

Article 2 makes clear that those rights must be recognised regardless of a people’s ‘race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’

In 2017, Xinjiang’s Government passed legislation to eliminate expressions of Islam, such as long beards or wearing veils in public, deeming all such expressions ‘extremist.’

Article 10 recognises that ‘the widest possible protection and assistance should be accorded to the family’ and reserves their responsibility ‘for the care and education of dependent children.’

The ‘Xinjiang Classrooms’ policy takes thousands of Uyghur children away from their families, immersing them in Han Chinese institutions, far from their language and culture.

Article 15 recognises the right of all people ‘to take part in cultural life’ and compels signatories to respect the ‘freedom indispensable’ from it.

Outside of internment camps, Uighurs are prohibited from performing religious burials, marriage ceremonies, and circumcisions. The customs of Islam are directly targeted and discriminated against.


China has also signed the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Article 2 of this treaty compels signatories to ‘condemn racial discrimination’ as well as to eliminate racial discrimination ‘without delay’ to promote ‘understanding among all races.’

Up to two million, Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and Uzbeks, are detained in internment camps. Their existence is at odds with the Han Chinese ethnic majority.

Article 5 guarantees ‘equality before the law,’ regardless of ‘race, colour, or national or ethnic origin.’ The article also guarantees protection against ‘violence and bodily harm’ inflicted by ‘government officials or by any individual group or institution.’ Finally, the article also reserves ‘the right to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State.’

The detainees, persecuted along racial lines, are treated with well-documented physical and sexual cruelty at the hands of state-sanctioned actors. Countless testimonies confirm these actions.


Fourthly, China is a signatory to the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

Article 1 of this treaty ‘prohibits severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental’ that enjoys involvement from ‘a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.’

As well as physical abuse, there are also many well-documented examples of deeply disturbing mental abuses and humiliations of detainees at the hands of state actors.


Finally, and perhaps, most alarmingly, the treatment of the Uighurs appears to break the laws enshrined in China’s own Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.

Article 4 of the Constitution prohibits ‘discrimination against and oppression of any ethnic group.’

The Chinese Constitution identifies individual ethnic groups as distinguishable by region, language, tradition, and custom. The previous examples demonstrate the escalation from discrimination to oppression.

Article 22 of promises to protect ‘places of scenic beauty and historical interest, valuable cultural relics and other forms of important historical and cultural heritage.’

Officials have destroyed mosques, burial grounds, and other cultural and historical sites. Many sites have been replaced by bars and restaurants, catering to Han tourists.

Article 36 states that citizens ‘shall enjoy freedom of religious belief,’ so long as religious practice does not ‘disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the state’s education system.’

This caveat of protecting ‘public order’ allows religious persecution of minorities in China. This deliberate ambiguity gives authorities licence to oppress Muslims under a technicality.

Article 37 states prohibits arrests without ‘the approval or by the decision of a people’s procuratorate or by the decision of a people’s court, and arrests must be made by a public security organ.’

While China’s 2016 Counterterrorism Law may permit mass arrests of citizens for practising religion, the law itself violates international treaties along with China’s own constitution.

The purpose of this level of detail regarding the exact laws the Chinese Government have broken is twofold.

Firstly, to do justice to the scale of this atrocity, the international community must reckon with the sheer quantity of international and domestic laws that the state has violated. This way, it can be better understood how to hold the state accountable.

Secondly, as a stark reminder that most of these treaties came into being when the European Holocaust was, at most, a few decades old. Human beings acted abominably, and the world said, ‘Never again.’ But we were wrong. If this genocide continues with as little interruption as its predecessor, the world will have broken the promise it made to itself when it said, ‘Never again.’

The second part of this article will detail what the world must urgently do and, specifically what the British Government must do, if we want to stop China’s carefree bulldozing of every norm and rule before it is too late.

The treaties and constitutions referenced are all readily available online.


Charlie Harris is a freelance writer and Policy Officer for the Young Fabians Criminal Justice Network. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, constitutional reform, and international relations. He tweets at @cmdharris.

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