Stimulating Change in the International Response (or lack thereof) to China’s Repression of the Uighurs


China’s persecution of the Uighur Muslim Population first received worldwide media attention in 2014 after Chinese officials reportedly banned several members of the ethnic group from attending mosques and fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Since then, various sources worldwide have reported on the trail of attacks on basic Uighur human rights violations by the Chinese Community Party (CCP). 


According to the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, China has contravened at least six treaties in their persecution of their Uighurs, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (“CERD”), the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crimes of Genocide (“Genocide Convention”), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (“UNCAT”). Prominent members of the international community have acknowledged that China’s conduct towards the Uighurs is in stark contravention to international human rights standards. 


In March 2016, the United States led the issuing of a Joint Statement signed by 12 countries that reflected concerns over China’s “deteriorating human rights record.” While this statement did not cite the Uighurs’ persecution, subsequent joint statements were issued later in July of 2019 (which received almost twice the number of signatories) that explicitly referenced the surge of accusations over the CCP’s treatment of the Uighurs. The statements requested the government “uphold its national laws and international obligations and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief, in Xinjiang and across China.” Nevertheless, these joint-statements have proven to have little-to-no effect in mitigating these human rights abuses. Recent data shows that the Chinese Community Party (CCP)-led repression continues to permeate the country today.


A report released this March by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) estimated that “more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019, and some of them were sent directly from detention camps”. The report describes these findings as representing a “new phase in China’s social re-engineering campaign,” identifying at least 38 Chinese factories that reportedly receive most of their fuel from forced Uighur labour. Data in reports like this can be seen as exposing the international community’s failure to put forward an adequate response to China’s repression of the Uighurs. Correspondingly, the report can also highlight the international community’s failure to fulfill their responsibility to enforce international human rights law- a commitment outlined in various international legal bodies or sources that spell out the duties of states to prevent genocide, torture, and slavery. The CCP will likely carry on with these abuses for as long as they choose if they are not met with appropriate countermeasures or incentives. The state-led responses to these human rights abuses like that seen in the example of the series of UN joints statements are too soft to have any tangible effect in enticing a power like China into conformity with international law.  


Recently, however, nations like the United States and Japan have introduced a legal framework that appears to have the potential to inspire China to respect Uighur human rights. While also carrying the fundamental purpose of expressing condemnation to the CCP (much like the Joint Statements), these expressions will go beyond mere vocal ‘urges’ or ‘calls,’ and function to directly penalize those guilty Chinese officials responsible for these human rights abuses. The United States is the first of the three to initiate such a policy (known as the “Uighur Human Rights Policy Act”), which, according to the New York Times, led to economic sanctions to be put on several Chinese officials deemed guilty of perpetuating these abuses against the Uighurs. However, although the onus of international law enforcement has traditionally been placed at the state-level, the world has been unable to encourage China to conform. This failure prompts us to consider potential alternatives and more effective means of ensuring international law is complied with. 


Recent global developments in the 21st century have given increasing relevance to non-state actors in replacing the traditional role, or primacy, of states in enforcing international. One of these non-state actors includes multinational corporations (MNCs), as the increasing influence they have on state-economies has been often found to translate into great political instrumentality in shaping the behaviour of the states they operate within. Like almost every other country in the 21st century, China relies on foreign investment to support its economy. Thus, when the ASPI report identified 80 global brands tied to these Chinese factories using forced Uighur labour, many believed this would send a message to the CCP. In other words, by MNCs opting out of these factories, this would almost certainly hurt China’s industrial economy, as the country relies on a steady demand of foreign companies to feed their corresponding hefty (and fixed) supply of factories. This example can also speak to the significance of organizations like ASPI in spreading awareness of state-led international human rights transgressions. It has a robust reputation-building capacity in society, leading corporations to avoid future-business dealings with ‘human rights denying’ countries like China. 


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