In December 2019, Beijing confirmed that all those held at the so called “re-education centers” in Xinjiang have “graduated.” Yet recent reports suggest that Beijing is building new camps. According John Cotton Richmond, Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been using these centers to arbitrarily detain “more than 1 million Uighurs and members of other ethnic religious minority groups, subjecting them to compulsory political and ideological indoctrination and forcing many in work camps, factories, and sweat shops to labor.” These allegations are strongly denied by CCP.

According to a report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), between July 2019 and July 2020, at least 61 suspected detention facilities have shown signs of new construction. The latest satellite imagery suggests that this includes at least 14 facilities that remain under construction in 2020. Approximately 50% of these are higher security facilities. According to the ASPI, this may suggest a shift in the camp’s usage from lower‑security “re‑education centers” to higher‑security prison‑style facilities. In addition, the ASPI reports that satellite imaginary also indicates that at least 70 facilities appear to have had internal fencing or perimeter walls removed, and eight camps that have possibly been closed. According to the ASPI, 90% of the desecuritized camps were lower security facilities.

This recently published data raises fresh concerns as to whether the new suspected detention facilities will be used to incarcerate Uighur Muslims, a persecuted religious minority group in China. According to recent allegations, an estimated one million (if not more) Uighur Muslims were detained by China in the so-called “re-education camps” which are designed to strip them of their religious and ethnic identity and to replace it with absolute loyalty to the state. 

These allegations, and others suggesting that Uighur Muslims were subjected to human trafficking, forced labor, forced sterilization, and forced abortion, are yet to be assessed by an independent inquiry. Indeed, in early September 2020, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, a prominent British lawyer, announced the launch of a new independent inquiry, the Uighur Tribunal, to assess the evidence of the alleged atrocities perpetrated against Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Uighur Region of northwest China. Later that September, two Select Committees of the British Parliament also announced inquiries into the situation in China, although with a more limited scope. The Foreign Affairs Committee is set to examine the ways in which the UK Government can prevent UK companies from benefiting from forced labor in Xinjiang but also into the needed responses to the alleged atrocities. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is focusing the extent to which businesses in the UK are exploiting the forced labor of Uighurs in the Xinjiang region of China.

However, neither of these initiatives will ensure that the perpetrators of the alleged atrocities will be brought to justice. Currently, there is no international tribunal that is able to look into the alleged atrocities in China. While there is an attempt underway to extend the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction over the alleged atrocities against the Uighur Muslims, it is not yet clear whether the ICC will recognize that it has jurisdiction to act. 

As China may be preparing for yet another wave of forced mass incarcerations of religious minority groups, states and international institutions must up their game to ensure that the allegations are adequately investigated and the crimes addressed. Ideally, states should act to prevent further such mass incarcerations.

In the meantime, more needs to be done to address some of the elements of the alleged atrocities. As Robert Destro, Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, explains, “the U.S. Government is launching a coordinated response against these abuses, including closing off opportunities to do business in the United States for companies that do not respect human rights, and kicking off a clean supply chain effort… The United States is also trying to help businesses make sure that they are not unknowingly complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang and other places, including the use of forced labor.  In July, the U.S. Department of State, along with three other U.S. federal government agencies, issued a business advisory for U.S. businesses about the risks of having their supply chains linked to entities complicit in forced labor and other human rights abuses throughout China.” This in addition to issuing several withhold release orders on goods produced in China that prevent goods from being imported into the United States when made with forced labor.

Assistant Secretary Destro further emphasizes “We all have a role to play in stopping business rights – business-related human rights abuses, including forced labor. Businesses should conduct human rights due diligence on their supply chains and business partners before entering into contracts.  Consumers should speak up with concerns about the money they spend buying apparel, electronics, or food going into the pockets of human rights abusers.  And governments should engage with companies and restrict imports of goods made with forced labor.”

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