Early last December, a group of nine British lawyers and human-rights specialists gathered in a wood-paneled room under the glass dome of Church House, near Westminster Abbey in downtown London. They were there to do what the United Nations and its member states have so far failed to accomplish: conduct a thorough review of five years of evidence regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of its minority Muslim Uyghur population in the province of Xinjiang, a sprawling semi-autonomous territory in northwest China. On December 9, after hearing days’ worth of live testimony and poring over thousands of pages of expert reports, as well as published regulations of the Chinese government and other leaked documents, the independent Uyghur Tribunal pronounced its verdict. It found the Chinese government guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide of its Uyghur population.
Such an important determination should not have taken this long, nor should the judgment have fallen to a people’s court. Since 2017 the world has known—through media reports, academic studies, and witness testimony—that the Chinese government has summarily interned more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang concentration camps. Detainees are routinely denied due process: no charges are brought, no criminal trials held, no sentences meted out. Initially, the Chinese government denied the camps’ existence. It only began acknowledging them in 2019, euphemistically referring to them as “vocational education and training centers.”
To some extent, Chinese media has managed to conceal the horrors that take place inside the internment camps. That leaves it to reports authored by Westerners, like anthropologist and Uyghur expert Darren Byler’s In the Camps, to fill in the gaps. No matter the site, survivor after survivor recounts the same abuse and degradation. Authorities often cram up to fifty Uyghurs into tiny cells measuring only 250 square feet; their occupants are forced to relieve themselves publicly in a single bucket, which is cleaned just once a week. Cellmates are also forbidden from speaking to each other. Instead, they’re encouraged to report on those who fail to speak Mandarin, attempt to practice their Muslim religion, or “criticize themselves” insufficiently.
Beatings and other forms of torture are common. According to Byler, constant bright lights prevent some Uyghurs from sleeping, while guards force others to “perform” for their food, “like contestants in a demented reality show.” Accounts of rape, sexual violence, and forced sterilization have emerged, and forced labor is systemic. Since there are no legal proceedings governing their stay in the camps, detainees often spend months, even years there, all without any idea of when (or if) they will ever be released.