UNESCO and its Members Must End Complicity in China’s Cultural Cleansing of Uyghurs—New UHRP Report


February 9, 2023 | 7:00 a.m. EST
For Immediate Release
Contact: Omer Kanat +1 (202) 819-0598, Peter Irwin +1 (646) 906-7722

The Uyghur Human Rights Project’s (UHRP) new work, The Complicity of Heritage: Cultural Heritage and Genocide in the Uyghur Region, highlights how China’s actions in East Turkistan constitute what the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) calls “strategic cultural cleansing”: the deliberate targeting of individuals and groups based on their cultural, ethnic or religious affiliation, combined with the intentional and systematic destruction of their cultural heritage.

“As acknowledged by the International Criminal Court, acts of dispossession and destruction of cultural heritage are often the precursor to acts of genocide. Attacks on cultural heritage, from sacred architecture to community practices and customs, are inseparable from direct physical attacks on human beings. They are a form of cultural warfare aimed at the elimination of a people and their identity,” said Professor Rachel Harris, a co-author of the report. 

Professor Harris added, “Across the world, heritage is used as a soft tool of governance to control history and people’s sense of identity. But when heritage is used in tandem with the hard modes of governance currently in play in the Uyghur region—one that states and international bodies have designated a form of genocide—then the heritage system itself is complicit in those acts of genocide.”

Against this backdrop, UNESCO continues to officially acknowledge China as a protector of Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz heritage in the Uyghur region through the inclusion of several items on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, World Heritage List, and Tentative List.  This report examines the current situation of five internationally recognized items on these lists, the Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang, Manas, Meshrep, Tengritagh (Tianshan), and Karez, in the context of China’s campaigns of securitization, mass incarceration and cultural cleansing in the Uyghur region.

Using these five case studies, The Complicity of Heritage demonstrates that China’s management of the cultural heritage of the Uyghur region places control firmly in the hands of the government and its chosen commercial partners. Heritage is exploited for economic profit and used to promote the government’s chosen versions of history and culture, regardless of established historical fact and regardless of the rights of communities and culture bearers acknowledged in UNESCO’s conventions.

Aziz Isa Elkun, co-author of The Complicity of Heritage said, “The report provides specific details concerning China’s violations of UNESCO’s standards of heritage safeguarding in the Uyghur region: by taking the heritage out of the hands of its rightful owners, by expelling communities from their ancestral lands and polluting the environment, by destroying built heritage and desacralizing religious traditions, and by criminalizing grassroots cultural practices, while using their staged representations to promote China’s chosen political narratives. Culture bearers are dispossessed and imprisoned while their history is rewritten and the economic benefits of their heritage flow back to central China.”

“State parties to UNESCO’s Heritage Conventions should press for urgent investigation into the violations detailed in this report, with view to removing Muqam, Manas, Meshrep and the Tengritagh (Tianshan) mountain range from UNESCO’s lists due to China’s failure to comply with international standards,” Mr. Isa Elkun added. 

The research highlights  testimony from interviews conducted with Uyghur exiles based in Central Asia, Turkey, Europe, and the U.S., and also draws on a range of previously published media, academic and NGO reports in English, Uyghur, Chinese and Kyrgyz. 

“This report is critical to the international community’s understanding of recognizing genocide. The Chinese state’s erasure of Uyghur cultural practices and rewriting of Uyghur history has long been documented. Instead of protecting the bearers of this heritage, agencies such as UNESCO, have been complicit in approving its destruction by Chinese authorities,” said UHRP Executive Director Omer Kanat. “I urge concerned governments, through the United Nations, to act now before our culture and history become the property of our persecutors.”