On the 29th of April 2020, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its Annual Report for 2020. The report has recommended the US State Department to classify the People’s Republic of China as a “Country of Particular Concern” in Tier I and impose targeted sanctions on China for engaging in violations of religious freedoms. USCIRF has acknowledged state-sponsored religious persecution of Uighur Muslims. It is estimated that approximately 1.5 million Muslim minorities are detained in concentration camps in Xinjiang. This is not the first time Uighur Muslims have grabbed the attention of the world. Earlier revelations from detainees report that they suffered from torture, rape, and sterilization among other abuses. Such an authoritarian regime raises serious concerns in the times of a pandemic. China has not only failed international standards of freedom of religion, but also stands in violation of the International Health Regulation, 2005 (IHR).
The extreme censorship laws in China are well known. China censors its press to the extent that religious persecution of Uighur Muslims took almost three years to draw global attention. In times like COVID-19, it becomes even more difficult to collect information on Uighur Muslims, particularly about their living conditions including whether the concentration camps are receiving basic amenities to fight the pandemic like soaps and face masks. China stands in violation of Article 7 by actively concealing information during a public health emergency. It is pertinent to note concealing information is in violation of certain basic civil and political rights of the Chinese citizens as well, which certainly includes Uighur Muslims.
Earlier reports that shed light on the deplorable conditions of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang paint a disquieting picture. There are about 465 camps spread over the region with extremely poor infrastructure. Poor sanitation and hygiene conditions are depicted by the fact that residents have to use plastic buckets as toilets. Where the world aims to fight COVID-19 by practicing and professing social distancing, the Uighur Muslims have to live in exceptionally small rooms where people take shifts to sleep. Even if one inmate from a camp gets infected the lives of millions will be at stake and China might not do anything about it. The world will never know due to the censorship laws.
Article 42 of the IHR mandates for the state to ensure that implementation of health measures are carried out without delay and in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner. China has successfully controlled media in Xinjiang province in order to avoid the real numbers of COVID-19 patients from being revealed. However, it is feared that under the garb of COVID-19, China might carry out mass extermination of Uighur Muslims. The International Uighur Muslim Community (IUMC) has called for a delegation to be sent from the World Health Organization to the concentration camps to check and control the outbreak of COVID-19. In addition to this, to cover-up a shortage of laborers, China is forcing Uighur Muslims to work as laborers. This is an outright discriminatory practice which is being ignored and needs immediate attention.
Even though China claims to have controlled the spread of COVID-19, due to the authoritarian nature and extraordinary circumstances in China, it has become almost impossible to cross-check any information put forth by China. If China has controlled the spread of the virus at all, international agencies should demand statistics to confirm the real figures of casualties, especially in Xinjiang province. In addition to that, the demand of the IUMC for a WHO delegation must be met. Countries in a position to impose individual sanctions on China and condemn its outright crimes against humanity by publicly advocating rights of the persecuted minorities must do so. For the world should not ignore the most vulnerable groups in times of a crisis.
▪︎ Prakhar Raghuvanshi is a B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) Candidate for the class of 2023 at the National Law University, Jodhpur, India.