The United Nations has voiced concern over China’s treatment of its Uighur community — an ethnic Muslim minority.
In particular, UN rights experts expressed alarm over reports of the Chinese government’s efforts to detain and “re-educate” Uighurs en masse, in a document of concluding observations published on Thursday after a two-day review of China’s human rights policies earlier this month.
For years, China’s Uighurs have faced discrimination. The Uighur community lives primarily in the northwest of China, near Russia and Central Asia, and considers itself more ethnically and culturally similar to Central Asia than China, which is predominantly Han Chinese. But over the past few months, tensions have escalated between the Chinese government and the Uighurs.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination estimates that anywhere from “tens of thousands to upwards of a million Uighurs” and other Muslim minorities living in China had been moved into re-education and indoctrination camps in Xinjiang, an autonomous region within China.
The committee said it has received credible reports that the Chinese government had converted Xinjiang into what committee member Gay McDougall described as “something resembling a massive internment camp, shrouded in secrecy, a sort of no-rights zone.”
Chinese officials have denied the existence of such “re-education” centers, but acknowledge that the country has taken what it considers “preventive security measure[s]” against terrorism and religious extremism. Officials also denied that such measures target any one particular ethnic minority.
Hu Lianhe, an official of the Chinese government, told the press it is “completely untrue” that Uighurs have been forcibly held in re-education centers, saying instead that, “For those who are convicted of minor offenses, we help and teach them in vocational skills in education and training centers, according to relevant laws,” according to the Guardian.
“There is no arbitrary detention and torture,” he added.
However, Adrian Zenz, an expert on Xinjiang, estimates that up to 1,200 detention centers and “re-education” camps have been built. Zenz told the New York Times that China’s crackdown on and detention of people in these camps is not limited to Uighurs — though Uighurs have reportedly been sent to the camps in “large numbers” — but includes other Muslim populations in China, such as the Kyrgyz and the Hui.
Uighurs formerly detained in these camps have told reporters that they were forced to undergo an indoctrination program over the course of several months, during which they were asked to renounce Islam, criticize their religious beliefs, and sing Communist Party propaganda songs, according to the Atlantic.
Reports of detainees being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol — forbidden in Islam — as well as of torture and death have also emerged, leading a group of bipartisan lawmakers in the United States to call on the Trump administration to impose sanctions on China.
In its concluding observations, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called for the immediate release of Uighurs detained in the camps without due process and for “impartial investigations into all allegations of racial, ethnic, and ethno-religious profiling.”