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Note: While the Tribunal uses the spelling Uyghur, many Western academic and news sources use the spelling Uighur. For consistency, the spelling Uyghur shall be used throughout this introduction.

The Tribunal

The Uyghur Tribunal is an unofficial body that examined claims of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity reportedly committed against the Uyghur people by China in its Xinjiang province. The Tribunal has no legal powers. Its hearings were held at Church House in London.

The Tribunal was chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, a barrister who has served as a part-time judge and worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia between 1998 and 2006 and led the prosecution of Slobodan Milošević, former President of Serbia.

Members of what the Tribunal styled as a jury, included several academics specialising in fields like medicine, law and anthropology, and board members of charitable organisations.

The Tribunal started its work in September 2020, and published a judgment in December 2021.

Tribunal’s findings

The Tribunal’s judgment (PDF) found evidence that China had detained “hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs – with some estimates well in excess of a million […] without any, or any remotely sufficient, reason and subjected [them] to acts of unconscionable cruelty, depravity and inhumanity”.

The judgment stated that torture of Uyghurs “attributable to the PRC [Peoples’ Republic of China] is established beyond reasonable doubt”. It also said that crimes against humanity attributable to the PRC “is established beyond reasonable doubt” by acts of: “deportation or forcible transfer; imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty; torture; rape and other sexual violence; enforced sterilisation; persecution; enforced disappearance; and other inhumane acts”.

On the subject of genocide, the Tribunal’s judgment emphasised the difficulty of assessing what legal standards should apply, and how such standards interact with public understanding of the phrase. However, they conclude that:

[O]n the basis of evidence heard in public, the Tribunal is satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the PRC, by the imposition of measures to prevent births intended to destroy a significant part of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as such, has committed genocide.

The evidence the Tribunal reported of birth-prevention measures included enforced abortions, the removal of wombs against women’s will, the killing of babies immediately after birth and mass enforced sterilisation through the insertion of IUD devices that were only removable by surgical means.

The judgment reported evidence of reduced birth-rates particularly in indigenous Uyghur counties:

Across the 29 counties with indigenous-majority populations for which we have 2019 or 2020 data, the birth-rate has fallen by 58.5% from the 2011-15 baseline average […] In those counties that are over 90% indigenous, the birth-rate fell at an even greater rate, showing a 66.3% decrease in 2019-20.

The Tribunal found however, that “there is no evidence of organised mass killings”.

Chinese Government response

In March 2021, the Chinese state imposed sanctions on nine UK citizens, including five MPs and Sir Geoffrey Nice, and several UK-based organisations, including the Uyghur Tribunal.

In September 2021, in a press conference the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Zheng Zeguang, described the Tribunal as “nothing but a farce carried out by a small number anti-China elements”. Mr Zheng further dismissed the evidence presented to the Tribunal and the witnesses, saying:

Its so-called “evidence” is nothing but sheer lies and disinformation. Its so-called “experts” are rumour mongers who have long engaged in slandering China. And the so-called “witnesses” the organizers have put together are merely actors who have been making up the so-called “persecution” that never happened at all.

The Ambassador dismissed claims of genocide as “absurd”, stating that in “the past 40 years, the population of Uygurs in Xinjiang has increased from 5.55 million to 11.6 million”.

He said that “Xinjiang-related issues have nothing to do with human rights, ethnic groups or religions, but everything to do with fighting terrorism, separatism and extremism”, that the “Vocational Education and Training Centres in Xinjiang are absolutely not “concentration camps”, but preventative and de-radicalisation measures”. Adding that “in nature, they are no different from the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP) of the UK or the de-radicalisation centres in France”.

On 10 December, the day the Tribunal published its findings, a spokesperson for China’s UK Embassy said the Tribunal was “nothing but a political tool used by a few anti-China and separatist elements to deceive and mislead the public”, describing it conclusions as “mere clumsy shows staged by anti-China elements for their self-entertainment”; adding “anyone with conscience and reason will not be deceived or fooled”.

UK Government statements on the tribunal

During a debate on the Tribunal in June 2021, the then Minister for Asia, Nigel Adams, told the House of Commons the Government “welcomes any rigorous and balanced initiative that raises awareness of the situation faced by Uyghurs and other minorities in China”. The Minister added that he had met Sir Geoffrey Nice in April 2021 to discuss the Uyghur Tribunal, that “we are following its work” and that his “officials will study any resulting report very carefully indeed”.

In January 2022, Nusrat Ghani MP asked Amanda Milling, the current Minister for Asia, about a December 2021 meeting she had held with Ambassador Zheng. The Minister in her answer said she had during the meeting “urged the Chinese Government to engage with the evidence provided by the Uyghur Tribunal”.

UK Government policy on investigating genocide

In November 2020, as part of its inquiry into Xinjiang detention camps, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee wrote to the then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, to ask if the Foreign Office would refer the issue of possible genocide against the Uyghurs to the International Criminal Court (PDF) or alternatively give its own opinion of whether genocide has been committed.

Mr Raab responded (PDF), that the Government would leave assessments of genocide up to “competent courts”:

[I]t has been the Government’s long-standing policy that any determination of genocide should only be made by competent courts, rather than by governments or non-judicial bodies. Competent courts include international courts, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, and national criminal courts that meet international standards of due process.

International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court (ICC), which prosecutes individuals – not states, has jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed after 1 July 2002. But it can only exercise jurisdiction if:

  • the accused is a national of a State Party to its Rome Statute (the ICC’s founding treaty), or a State otherwise accepting the jurisdiction of the Court; or
  • the crime took place on the territory of a State Party or a State otherwise accepting the jurisdiction of the Court; or
  • the United Nations Security Council has referred the situation to the Prosecutor, irrespective of the nationality of the accused or the location of the crime.

China is not a State Party to the Rome Statute. If the Security Council were to try to refer the issue of the Uyghur’s to the ICC’s Prosecutor, China could use its veto to block the move.

However, the ICC’s recent rulings on investigating crimes against the Rohingya people may have provided another avenue. The Court looked at whether it could investigate alleged crimes committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar, which is not a State Party to the Rome Statute, but considered that many of the Rohingya fled into Bangladesh, which is a State Party, and at least part of the alleged crimes may have taken place on Bangladeshi territory.

In September 2018, the Court clarified (PDF) in general ruling that the Court may have jurisdiction “if at least one element of a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court or part of such a crime is committed on the territory of a State Party to the Statute”.

In 2020 a complaint against China was filed at the ICC by two Uyghur exile groups. In addition to alleged abuses against Uyghurs inside China’s borders, the groups also lobbied the court to investigate Beijing for pursuing the repatriation of thousands of Uyghurs through unlawful arrests in or deportation from other countries, including Cambodia and Tajikistan.

In December 2020, however, the then chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensoud, said the abuses described “have been committed solely by nationals of China within the territory of China,” and that she would not investigate the claims further, but said she would keep the file open for further evidence to be submitted.

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