Authoritative legal opinion concludes that treatment of Uyghurs amounts to crimes against humanity and genocide

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February 8, 2021

Today the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), in partnership with the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), has obtained an authoritative legal opinion on the treatment of Uyghurs by Chinese authorities. In what is the first legal opinion published by barristers pursuant to formal instructions, leading lawyers at Essex Court Chambers (London), led by Alison McDonald QC, conclude that the available evidence credibly establishes that crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide have been committed.

Since 2017, the Chinese government has systematically operated a vast detention and “de-extremification” scheme, focused on eliminating Uyghur culture and religious practices. It is estimated that, over this period, around one to two million Uyghurs have been detained in a network of high-security indoctrination and prison camps, with hundreds of thousands engaged in forced labour in factories and elsewhere, both inside and outside the camps. Uyghurs are ethnically and culturally a Turkic people predmoniatedly located in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (XUAR, referred to by Uyghurs as East Turkistan).

The Opinion outlines how there is a credible case that, as part of a widespread and systematic attack on the Uyghur people in the region, crimes against humanity are taking place including enslavement, imprisonment, torture, rape, enforced steriliation, enforced disappearance and persecution. Significantly, it further explains the credible case that the crime of genocide is occurring, as there is evidence of an intent to destroy the Uyghur population as such, including through a pattern of Chinese State-mandated conduct. This conduct includes the intentional infliction of serious physical and mental harm to Uyghur people in detention, measures to prevent births within the Uyghur community and forcible transfer of Uyghur children outside of their communities.

In addition, the legal opinion considers the potential criminal liability of individuals, and concludes that there is a credible case of crimes against humanity and genocide against Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party; Zhu Hailun, Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee from 2016 to 2019, and now Deputy Secretary of the Xinjiang People’s Congress; and Chen Quanguo, Party Secretary of XUAR since 2016, as well as potentially others.

The significance of these findings is far reaching. If a court reaches the same conclusions as those reached by the legal experts at Essex Court Chambers, it could have both political and legal consequences for China itself, and for the high-ranking officials whose individual responsibility is identified, and who may be liable for criminal prosecution and individual sanctions. The Opinion provides yet further strong support for national governments to acknowledge the evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide in XUAR, and to take action to investigate and prevent any such ongoing atrocities. 

Further, the Opinion has immediate implications for business enterprises, both in the UK and internationally, which may be complicit in these crimes through their ongoing commercial dealings with factories in the region despite clear evidence of the vast numbers of Uyghurs trapped in forced labour at such factories. During 2020 GLAN and WUC petitioned both the UK and US customs authorities to ban imports of cotton from the region given the likelihood that goods produced there are tainted by forced labour. The Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour also submitted a petition to the US authorities. In January 2021, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a region-wide Withhold Release Order on all cotton (and tomato) products produced in, or produced with cotton from, the XUAR. 

Siobhan Allen, Legal Officer with GLAN, said: “This ground-breaking legal opinion concludes that the atrocities occurring in XUAR credibly reach the level of severity and systematicity required to constitute crimes against humanity and genocide. Governments and businesses can no longer stand back and avoid taking action to ensure that they are not complicit in allowing these horrific crimes to continue.” 

Rahima Mahmut, UK Director of the World Uyghur Congress, said: “This is a landmark moment for Uyghurs. This authoritative determination sets out the widespread crimes against humanity faced by Uyghurs and most significantly finds that there is a clear and credible case that genocide is being perpetrated against my people. The finding is clear: there is an intent to destroy Uyghurs. As Uyghurs we have known for a long time that attempts to erase our entire culture amounted to genocide and to have it set out in such authoritative terms only increases the pressure on others to act. These findings cannot be ignored.  Governments globally have a duty to take action to protect Uyghurs, the prevent genocide and to hold to account those in the Chinese Government responsible for these crimes. Corporations operating in the Uyghur region have a responsibility revaluate their relationship with the Chinese government. To turn a blind eye to the truth is to be complicit in the genocide of my people.”

Peter Irwin, Senior Program Officer for Advocacy & Communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said: “This finding makes it impossible for responsible governments to continue treating China as a normal member of the international community. Whether it’s the 2022 Beijing Olympics or Volkswagen building vehicles a few miles from an internment camp, governments and global businesses will need to reassess their relationship with Beijing until this kind of treatment ends. History will not treat them kindly if they favour business in a time of genocide.”

GLAN’s Director, Dr. Gearóid Ó Cuinn, said: “Businesses can no longer turn a blind eye, and thus facilitate, these egregious breaches of international law and human rights standards in their pursuit of profit. Given the gravity of the situation Governments need to act ensure that businesses are held responsible for failing to fully extricate their supply chains from Xinjiang”


Media Contacts: Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn (Director) | | +447521203427

Notes for editors

  1. The legal Opinion is an authoritative, independent opinion produced by pre-eminent barristers qualified to practice in England and Wales. It is the first such Opinion of its kind in respect of the situation in XUAR. The formal and persuasive findings, that the available evidence credibly establishes that crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide have been committed, are ground-breaking.
  2. The legal Opinion was produced by Essex Court Chambers, instructed by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP).
  3. Essex Court Chambers is a leading set of barristers’ chambers in London, United Kingdom, specialised in litigation, arbitration, public law and public international law |
  4. The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) is a non-profit organisation that works to pursue innovative legal actions across borders to challenge powerful actors involved in human rights violations and systemic injustice by working with affected communities. GLAN has offices in the UK (London) and Ireland (Galway) | @glan_law |
  5. The World Uyghur Congress is a Munich-based non-governmental organisation that strives to promote democracy, human rights and freedom for the Uyghur people through peaceful, nonviolent, and democratic means in order to determine their political future. Contact: Rahima Mahmut, (U.K. Project Director) +447830039693
  6. The Uyghur Human Rights Project is a research-based advocacy organization that promotes the rights of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim peoples in East Turkistan. It publishes reports and analysis in English and Chinese to defend Uyghurs’ civil, political, social, cultural, and economic rights according to international human rights standards. Contact: Peter Irwin (Senior Program Officer): | @UyghurProject |