On 17 November 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of allegations of human rights abuses in China.

This article focuses on the treatment of the Uyghur minority in China’s Xinjiang province and the UK government’s position that it cannot determine whether this amounts to genocide. It considers how human rights issues sit within the wider context of the UK-China relationship. The final section of the article highlights recent Library and committee briefings examining particular allegations of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and in Hong Kong.

1. Human rights assessments of China

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) identified China as one of 31 human rights priority countries in its 2020 human rights and democracy report. These reports are usually published annually but the 2020 report, published in July 2021, is the most recent. The FCDO said that the human rights situation in China had continued to deteriorate. It found that:

Evidence grew of widespread and serious violations in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims. The authorities continued to place extensive restrictions on media freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. China’s detention and poor treatment of human rights defenders persisted, as did restrictions preventing civil society from operating freely.

The FCDO report also highlighted breaches by China of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the agreement signed by the UK and China in 1984 setting out commitments regarding the handover of Hong Kong to China. It said that by imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, China was “violating Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and threatening directly the rights protected in the joint declaration”. The report identified China’s imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators as another breach of the joint declaration.

The FCDO assessment accords with more recent reports by other organisations that monitor human rights around the world.

The US State Department’s 2021report on human rights in China (published April 2022) said there were credible reports of “significant human rights issues”.

For instance, it highlighted reports that the government had engaged in arbitrary or unlawful killings and detentions, forced disappearances and torture. It also pointed to the lack of an independent judiciary, arbitrary interference with privacy, including what it described as pervasive and intrusive technical surveillance and monitoring; serious restrictions on internet freedom, free expression and the media, including reports of physical attacks on and criminal prosecutions of journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents and others, and their family members. The report also covered allegations of forced sterilisation and coerced abortions, people trafficking and forced labour, and violence against national, racial and ethnic minority groups.

Amnesty International’s ‘State of the world’s human rights’ report for 2021/22 (published March 2022) concluded that the human rights situation across China continued to deteriorate in 2021. It reported that:

Human rights lawyers and activists reported harassment and intimidation; unfair trials; arbitrary, incommunicado and lengthy detention; and torture and other ill-treatment for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression and other human rights. The government continued a campaign of political indoctrination, arbitrary mass detention, torture and forced cultural assimilation against Muslims living in Xinjiang. Thousands of Uyghur children were separated from their parents. The National Security Law for Hong Kong enabled human rights violations which were unprecedented since the establishment of the Special Administrative Region. There was limited progress in recognizing the rights of LGBTI people in Hong Kong.

Human Rights Watch’s ‘World report 2022’ (published December 2021) said that China had “doubled down on repression inside and outside the country” in 2021. Among other issues, it found that:

Authorities devastated human rights protections and civil liberties in Hong Kong, recasting much of the peaceful behaviour that had undergirded Hong Kong life, such as publishing news, as acts of subversion. An April 2021 report by Human Rights Watch found authorities were committing crimes against humanity as part of a widespread and systematic attack on Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, including mass detention, torture, and cultural persecution. Tibetans continued to be subjected to grave abuses, including harsh and lengthy imprisonment for exercising their basic rights.

2. Treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province

International concerns about the mistreatment and human rights violations of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have existed for several years. There are an estimated 12 million Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang region. Uyghurs speak a south-eastern Turkic language and are predominantly Muslim. The vast majority of Uyghurs reside in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Accusations of violations against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have been widely reported in the media and by international organisations. This includes accusations of the detention of Uyghurs in ‘camps’ for the purposes of re-education, surveillance, restrictions on certain religions, and forced labour. China is also accused of carrying out forced sterilisation and birth control on women in an alleged attempt to limit the Uyghur population. Several UN bodies and non-governmental organisations have collected reports of restrictive and oppressive measures against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang province.

2.1 UK government response

In March 2021, the UK imposed sanctions against those it said were responsible for the violations taking place against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. These consisted of travel bans and assets freezes for four senior officials, and an asset freeze against the Public Security Bureau of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. Dominic Raab, the then foreign secretary, described the situation in Xinjiang as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time”. He said evidence pointed to “a highly disturbing programme of repression, including the criminalisation of expressions of religion; widespread use of forced labour; forcible sterilisations; separation of children from their parents; and the subjection of an entire population to surveillance.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, minister of state at the FCDO, outlined in October 2022 other measures the government had taken to try to pressure China to change its behaviour. In addition to imposing sanctions, he said the government had “led joint statements at the UN, taken action to tackle forced labour in supply chains, funded research to expose China’s actions, and consistently raised China’s human rights violations at the highest levels in Beijing”.

The UK has recently voiced its support at the UN for further action to be taken based on an assessment of the situation in Xinjiang by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In August 2022, OHCHR published its assessment of what it said were the “serious allegations of human rights violations against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim communities” in Xinjiang that had been raised through UN human right mechanisms since 2017. The OHCHR said its assessment was based on a rigorous review of available documentary evidence. The OHCHR report concluded that:

Serious human rights violations have been committed in XUAR in the context of the [Chinese] government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-‘extremism’ strategies. The implementation of these strategies, and associated policies in XUAR has led to interlocking patterns of severe and undue restrictions on a wide range of human rights.

Assessing the treatment of people held in so-called ‘vocational education and training centres’ (VETC), the report found:

Allegations of patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention, are credible, as are allegations of sexual and gender-based violence. While the available information at this stage does not allow OHCHR to draw firm conclusions regarding the exact extent of such abuses, it is clear that the highly securitised and discriminatory nature of the VETC facilities, coupled with limited access to effective remedies or oversight by the authorities, provide fertile ground for such violations to take place on a broad scale.

The report concluded the extent of arbitrary detentions against Uyghurs and others, in context of “restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights, enjoyed individually and collectively, may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.

China published a response to this assessment, disputing the OHCHR findings. It dismissed as “groundless” the accusation that policy in Xinjiang was based on ethnic discrimination. It maintained that “counter-terrorism and deradicalisation efforts in Xinjiang have been all along conducted on the track of the rule of law” and that VETCs in Xinjiang were “learning facilities established in accordance with the law for deradicalisation, and are by no means the so-called ‘concentration camps’”.

However, Simon Manley, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, described the OHCHR report as “the most significant to date” as it was a “thorough, objective and independent assessment from the principle UN human rights body”. Mr Manley said it confirmed the UK’s “worst fears” about the situation in Xinjiang. The UK supported formal action at the UN Human Rights Council that requested a debate on the situation in Xinjiang. However, the UN Human Rights Council voted by 19 to 17 not to debate the report. Amnesty International described this outcome as “a dismaying result that puts the UN’s main human rights body in the farcical position of ignoring the findings of the UN’s own human rights office”.

Following the vote, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park said that “China’s attempts to stifle debate and hide the truth will not succeed”. He said the UK would continue to work with its partners to “hold the Chinese authorities to account and continue to shine a spotlight on China’s human rights violations”.

2.2 Determination of genocide

Some countries and parliaments have described China’s actions against the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang as genocide. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as any of the following acts, committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:

  • killing members of the group
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

Both US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his predecessor Mike Pompeo have used the term ‘genocide’ in relation to China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The parliaments of Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and the Netherlands have all passed resolutions accusing the Chinese government of committing genocide against the Uyghurs. The House of Commons also did so in April 2021, resolving that “that Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are suffering crimes against humanity and genocide”.

However, this is not the position of the UK government. The government has repeatedly emphasised that it is “the longstanding policy of the British government not to make determinations in relation to genocide”. The government maintains that “as with other crimes, judgment should be made after all available evidence has been considered by a competent court”. When he was foreign secretary, Dominic Raab explained that ‘competent courts’ included international courts, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and national criminal courts that meet international standards of due process.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recommended in 2021 that the government should accept, as expressed in the House of Commons resolution, that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are suffering genocide and crimes against humanity. While the government agreed there was “compelling evidence of widespread and systematic human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang”, it maintained its policy that it is not for the government to make a determination of genocide.

Issues of jurisdiction have arisen in relation to attempts to bring cases against China before international courts. The Office of the Prosecutor to the ICC concluded in December 2020 that it did not have jurisdiction to investigate claims made against senior Chinese leaders for alleged genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs.

The Uyghur Tribunal, an unofficial tribunal chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice KC, examined claims of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity reportedly committed against the Uyghur people by China in Xinjiang. The tribunal was established at the request of Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress. The tribunal stated on its website it was being set up because it was not “realistically possible” to bring China to any formal international court, in particular the ICJ. Although China has ratified the genocide convention, it has a reservation against ICJ jurisdiction.

The tribunal issued its judgment in December 2021. The judgment emphasised the difficulty of assessing what legal standards should apply to determining whether genocide has been committed, and how such standards compare with public understanding of the term. Ultimately, the tribunal concluded it was “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the PRC [People’s Republic of China], by the imposition of measures to prevent births intended to destroy a significant part of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as such, has committed genocide”. It also found that torture of the Uyghurs attributable to the PRC and crimes against humanity attributable to the PRC were established beyond reasonable doubt.

There have been efforts in the UK Parliament to establish a process for the domestic courts to make a preliminary determination of genocide. The Genocide Determination Bill [HL], a private member’s bill tabled by Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench), is currently before the House of Lords. The bill would provide for the High Courts in England and Wales, and in Northern Ireland, and the Court of Session in Scotland, to make preliminary determinations as to what constitutes genocide in accordance with the UK’s obligations under the genocide convention. It would also introduce a referral mechanism for such determinations to be referred to international courts. Several members referred to the situation of the Uyghurs during the bill’s second reading debate on 28 October 2022.

3. Human rights and the wider UK-China relationship

Addressing human rights issues is only one aspect of the wider UK-China relationship. The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, published in March 2021 under Boris Johnson’s premiership, set out the government’s assessment of the importance of different factors in this relationship. It said that “China’s growing international stature is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today”. This would have “major implications for British values and interests and for the structure and shape of the international order”. The integrated review said China’s authoritarian system, with different values to those of the UK, would present “challenges” for the UK and its allies. The review concluded the UK would need “a robust diplomatic framework” to manage its relationship with China that would allow the UK to “manage disagreements, defend our values and preserve space for cooperation where our interests align”. It said the UK would continue to pursue a positive economic relationship with China. At the same time, though, the UK would take measures to protect its economic security and would “not hesitate to stand up for our values and our interests where they are threatened, or when China acts in breach of existing agreements”. For instance, it cited the actions the government had taken in response to the national security law in Hong Kong and human rights violations in Xinjiang.

The House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee has expressed concerns the government has not formulated a clear strategy for managing the relationship with China. In its report, ‘The UK and China’s security and trade relationship: A strategic void’, published in September 2021, the committee concluded:

The attempt of the three most recent governments [those of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson] to navigate across the complexity of economic, sovereignty, security and human rights issues in relation to China has led to inconsistencies, created uncertainty and points to a lack of a central strategy. There is no clear sense of what the current government’s strategy towards China is, or what values and interests it is trying to uphold in the UK-China relationship.

The committee also concluded that “balancing the desire for increased economic engagement with upholding values such as human rights will be a particular challenge in the UK’s relationship with China”. It said the government must “ensure the balance does not tilt towards preserving economic relations at the cost of human rights”. The committee emphasised the government “cannot sit on the fence over this issue”. It called on the government to publish a single, coherent China strategy that would “resolve the ambiguities in the current government’s China policy”, including “how the government intends to balance economic relations trade concerns with upholding values such as human rights and labour protection”.

In its response, published in November 2021, the government said the integrated review already set out the “core elements” of the UK strategy towards China. The government was “clear that more trade will not come at the expense of human rights”. It pointed to actions it had already taken in response to human rights violations in Xinjiang. It also argued that “by having stronger economic relations with partners, we can have more open discussions on a range of issues, including human rights”.

The committee wrote to the government in January 2022, arguing it was still “not clear how the UK intends to balance human rights concerns and allegations of genocide with an economic relationship, and how it will prioritise when these considerations clash”. In its response, the government said its serious concerns about human rights violations in Xinjiang “naturally inform our position towards China”. For instance, the situation in Xinjiang and wider human rights concerns had led to the decision not to send government representation to the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The government said it would continue to lead international efforts to hold China to account for its actions.

Members of the House of Lords raised the issue of human rights during the debate on the committee’s report in October 2022. Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, minister of state at the FCDO, said that China “must be held to the same human rights standards as all other members of the international community”.

4. Read more

4.1 Uyghurs

4.2 Hong Kong

4.3 General

Cover image by Unsplash.