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The Uighur battle against China's 'oppressive' hand

A recent United Nations report accuses the Asian giant of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang
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AP/LEE JIN-MAN  -   A protester holds a placard during a demonstration to show support for the Uighurs and their struggle for human rights in Hong Kong, December 22, 2019

China, which finds itself in the international spotlight, especially due to its ongoing dispute with Taiwan, is opening another front within its borders. This time it is the attacks against the Uighur people. 
 
But who are the Uighurs? They are a people who see and represent themselves as an ethnic group distinct from China and culturally closer to the Central Asian countries with whom they share, among other things, the Muslim religion. They are mostly found in the autonomous region of Xinjiang - as is Tibet in the south of the country - and for centuries their economy has revolved around agriculture and trade, becoming a turning point on the Silk Road.

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AFP/JOHANNES ELISELE - Hui Muslim men leaving the Laohuasi Mosque after Friday prayers in Linxia, Gansu Province, China

In the early 20th century, the Uighur people declared their independence from China, but this period was short-lived, as in 1949 the people came under Communist control in China. It was then that the exodus began. The World Uyghur Congress based in Munich, Germany, claims that 20 million Uyghurs are now outside the country, with significant communities in the US, Germany and Turkey.

For those who remained in the region, the transfer of the Chinese population within Xinjiang's borders - a common communist practice - has made the people a minority (45%) and therefore the interests of the Asian giant prevail.

Throughout both the 1990s and 2000s - for example, during the 2008 Beijing Olympics - the Xinjiang people have been repressed and accused of terrorism, claiming, according to China, that they are a separatist people aiding al-Qaeda and trained in Afghanistan, although no evidence of this has been found. 
 

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AFP/AFP - Graphic on "re-education" camps in China's Xinjiang region, according to research published in November 2019 by the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement

However, arbitrary detentions, based on China's fear of the possible creation of an independent state in the country, have increased in recent months, which is why the United Nations has decided to intervene by drawing up a report on the situation in the autonomous region, which also refers to the case experienced by Nury Turkel and her recent book 'No escape'.

UN report: controversial

These groups have made important criticisms and complaints about the recent report published by the United Nations (UN) on their situation in Xinjiang, an autonomous region of the country. Specifically, the 45-page document by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the result of alarm expressed to UN committees in 2018 after learning of alleged enforced disappearances, racial discrimination and torture taking place in the region. Between May and April this year - following the stabilisation of the COVID-19 pandemic - OHCHR went to the field.

The report, which has been years in the making, concludes that Beijing is guilty of crimes against humanity, however, despite this the document has not included the term genocide, as demanded by ethnic and religious minorities in the country. According to Rahima Mahmut, a UK-based Uighur activist and head of the World Uighur Congress, "in a final insult to Uighur survivors, the report does not mention the word genocide even once". Rayhan Asat, a Uighur activist and human rights lawyer, described the report as "conservative" but added that it "gave a voice to the victims" in an interview with The Guardian.
 

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan  - Chinese police convoy in Kashgar (Xinjiang). This province is home to the largest number of Uighurs, a minority marginalised by the government
The use of high technology to determine crimes

The document, produced by the UN, has been compiled using high-tech satellite imagery, including graphic evidence and testimonies from those directly affected by the repression or data analysis. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been a witness to this and has publicly reprimanded China's actions. On a visit to Uighur territory, Bachelet witnessed forced population displacements, visited indoctrination camps, and witnessed China's repression in the autonomous region. The document calls on China to "completely revise" its internal security laws and repeal all discriminatory laws against minorities. However, China has rejected both the accusations and the UN recommendations.

For its part, the United States has publicly expressed its concern about the situation, as have parliaments in other Western countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and France.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan  -  In camps like this one, the Chinese government holds nearly a million Uighurs. Under the euphemism of "re-education", a programme of cultural assimilation is being carried out
What does the investigation represent?

Categorically, the UN report is insufficient for ethnic minorities: "This is a victory for China, which they accuse of pressuring the supranational body not to formally apply the UN Genocide Convention to them", Salih Hudayar, Prime Minister of the East Turkestan Government in Exile - which represents more than a dozen organisations of the Uyghur and East Turkic diaspora - told the Middle East Eye. As mentioned, in addition to attacks against Uyghurs, the report also lists crimes against other ethnic Turkic peoples and Muslim minorities.

In line with the report published by the UN, other organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists agree with the OHCHR report, which documents patterns of mass arrests, torture and cultural persecution through so-called re-education camps or cases of sexual and gender-based violence.

As a result, more than 60 Uighur groups have called on the international community to take action and call for formal and independent investigations into China's human rights violations. The groups are also calling on the UN Human Rights Council to form a Commission of Inquiry into the matter, and on the UN Office for the Prevention of Genocide to conduct a new assessment.