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UK legal opinion finds a credible case of China committing genocide against Uyghurs

A new UK legal opinion has concluded that there is a “very credible case” that the Chinese government is carrying out genocide against Uyghur people. It found that there is evidence of “state-mandated behaviour showing an intent to destroy the largely Muslim minority in north-western China.”

What is a legal opinion?

A legal opinion is the professional judgement given by a respected QC who is an independent expert in their field. They assess evidence and the law to reach a concluding opinion, which doesn’t have any legal standing in the way a court judgement does, but can be used to initiate legal action. 

The opinion on China’s genocide was instigated by the Global Legal Action Network and the World Uyghur Congress and the Uyghur Human Rights Project. It was based upon a thorough legal assessment of over six months, using publicly available evidence from governments, international organisations, academic scholars, the media, and charities. This included first-hand witness and survivor testimonies, satellite images and leaked Chinese government documents. The 100-page legal opinion was written by senior barristers at Essex Court Chambers, and is the first formal legal assessment in the UK regarding China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In order to establish genocide, a court must establish that acts were committed with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

What were the findings?

The legal opinion stated: “On the basis of the evidence we have seen, this Opinion concludes that there is a very credible case that acts carried out by the Chinese government against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region amount to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide.” This includes the “deliberate infliction of harm on Uyghurs in detention, measures to prevent women giving birth – including sterilisation and abortion – and the forcible transfer of Uyghur children out of their community.”

The opinion sets out extensive evidence of what it describes as “enslavement, torture, rape, enforced sterilisation and persecution” of the Uyghurs.

Detainees were subject to “a range of serious physical harm”, such as electric shocks, being forced to remain in stress positions for long periods of time, food deprivation, beatings, and being shackled and blindfolded. China has continuously denied allegations of genocide and human rights abuses against Uyghur people. When they could no longer deny the existence of the camps in Xinjiang after news and images emerged, China said that they were “re-education camps” for the purpose of tackling terrorist extremism. 

The opinion also detailed evidence of the mass forced sterilisation of women as part of a population control plan, that has been acknowledged by the Chinese authorities. Under international law, measures intended to prevent births within a group are among the activities considered as genocide. A report by Chinese scholar Adrian Zenz released in June 2020 first alleged the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women and forced abortions. Based upon official regional data, policy documents and interviews with ethnic minority women in Xinjiang, his report found that Uyghur and other ethnic minority women were being threatened if they refused to abort pregnancies that exceed birth quotas, and others were involuntarily fitted with intrauterine devices (a form of contraception) or coerced into receiving sterilisation surgery. Based on similar evidence, the new legal opinion states:

“There is prolific credible evidence of Uyghur women being subject to measures that prevent them from reproducing, either temporarily or permanently (such as by having IUDs non-consensually implanted or through forced removal of their wombs), as well as forced abortions. Such acts would, in our view, clearly constitute a form of genocidal conduct under [international law].”

Additionally, there have been allegations of systematic rape, sexual abuse and torture of Uyghur women in the camps. In accounts obtained by the BBC, several former detainees gave first-hand statements about how men would remove women from their cells every night and rape them. One survivor, Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after her release and is now in the US, told the BBC how she was tortured and later gang raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men. Some women, she said, were taken away from cells at night and never returned, and others who did come back were threatened against telling anyone else what had happened to them. “”You can’t tell anyone what happened, you can only lie down quietly,” Tursunay said. “It is designed to destroy everyone’s spirit.”

As well as birth control, the forcible transfer of children from one group to another is included in genocide. According to the opinion: “There is evidence of Uyghur children being forcibly removed from their parents. This includes their non-consensual placement in orphanages when one or both parents are in detention, and their mandatory placement in boarding schools.” Part of the erasure of the Uyghur culture includes giving children Han names and putting them up for adoption by Han ethnic families. This “bolsters the evidence that their forced removal is carried out with the intention of destroying the Uyghur population as an ethnic group as such.”

One of the most significant aspects of the opinion is that it names Chinese president Xi Jinping directly. It states that the “the close involvement of Xi Jinping” in the targeting of Uyghurs would support a “plausible” case of genocide against him. It also names Zhu Hailun, deputy secretary of Xinjiang’s people’s congress, and Chen Quanguo, party secretary in Xinjiang, as figures with personal responsibility for the genocide. 

Using leaked internal government documents, it shows that “Mr Xi controls the overall direction of state policy and has made a range of speeches exhorting the punitive treatment of the Uyghurs. Mr Chen and Mr Zhu have acted upon that overall policy by devising and implementing the measures which have been carried out in XUAR, including mass detention and surveillance.”

“The evidence reviewed above suggests the close involvement of Xi Jinping, Chen Quanguo and Zhu Hailun in initiating and implementing a range of measures which, taken together, target Uyghurs with a severity and to the extent that one could infer an intent to destroy the group as such,” it adds. The conclusion is a “credible case against each of these three individuals for crimes against humanity.”

Response to the opinion

In response to accusations of genocide, the Chinese embassy in London said that anti-China forces in the West were fabricating “the lies of the century” in order to smear China’s image and slander its policies on Xinjiang. The embassy insists that the population of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, is in fact growing, and all ethnic groups have the same legal status and freedoms of religion and culture.

“Anyone who is fair-minded can see that the true intent of those forces is to suppress and contain China’s development… Their moves are driven by a Cold War mentality, hegemonic worldview and zero-sum game mindset. China will never allow such farce and vicious demonization to succeed. Lies may mislead people for a while, but cannot win the trust of the world. Facts and truth will eventually bust all lies,” the embassy added.

According to the BBC, the opinion is significant because it beats a legal path that UK judges would follow if Parliament were to agree on new legislation allowing the High Court to decide on matters of genocide. Cross party MPs hope to push through this change in the House of Commons on 9 February. Ministers have been criticised for not letting British judges determine matters on genocide, instead offering to boost the role of parliamentary committees. It is understood that relevant committees have rejected the idea, so the government is trying to avoid defeat in the Commons on Tuesday. 

Last month, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced business measures to help ensure that British organisations are not complicit in, or profiting from, human rights violations in Xinjiang. This includes a review into which UK products can be exported to the region, and the introduction of financial penalties for businesses that do not comply with the Modern Slavery Act. It also includes increased support for UK bodies to exclude businesses complicit with human rights abuses from their supply chains. The measures are designed to send a “clear signal” to China.

“The evidence of the scale and severity of the human rights violations being perpetrated in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims is now far reaching. Today we are announcing a range of new measures to send a clear message that these violations of human rights are unacceptable, and to safeguard UK businesses and public bodies from any involvement or linkage with them,” said Raab on 12 January.

The government also urged “coordinated international action to address the risk of forced labour entering global supply chains.” With the new legal opinion, the UK government should continue efforts to reprimand China’s actions in Xinjiang and encourage further legal action against the genocide of Uyghur people.

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