Two Uyghur exile groups have filed a dossier of evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, accusing top Chinese officials—including President Xi Jinping—of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” related to a crackdown on the Muslim ethnic minority group in northwestern China.
The East Turkistan Government-in-Exile (ETGE) and the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM) rights group presented evidence to the ICC last week and called on the court to investigate Chinese officials under its mandate to prosecute cases of genocide and crimes against humanity. East Turkistan is the preferred traditional name Uyghurs use for their homeland.
The ICC, which also hears cases of war crimes, can exercise jurisdiction over crimes referred to it by a state party or by the United Nations Security Council, or can begin a preliminary examination propio motu (“on one’s own initiative”) into alleged crimes—such as in the case of the ETGE and ETNAM filing. ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, of The Gambia, must receive approval from judges to open a formal investigation after completing her preliminary examination of the evidence and it could take months before she issues a response.
Salih Hudayar, the prime minister of the Washington-based ETGE and founder of the ETNAM, submitted the groups’ filing days after German researcher Adrian Zenz published a report documenting a dramatic increase in recent years in the number of forced sterilizations and abortions targeting Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The report concludes that such measures may amount to a government-led campaign of genocide under United Nations definitions.
“For too long we have been oppressed by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and we have suffered so much that the genocide of our people can be no longer ignored,” Hudayar told RFA’s Mandarin Service.
“We are hopeful that the prosecutor will see our claim and she will open an investigation,” he said.
In addition to including documentation of forced sterilization practices in the XUAR, the London-based legal team representing ETGE and ETNAM submitted evidence of Beijing’s policy of mass internment in the region, where up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are believed to have been held in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017. Rights groups and U.S. officials say the campaign, which increasingly appears to be shifting to a forced labor scheme, constitutes crimes against humanity.
The dossier of evidence and documents includes a list of more than 30 high-ranking Chinese officials who the groups say should be held accountable for abuses in the XUAR, including Xi, Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, and other top officials in charge of policies in the region, as well as military commanders.
If the ICC decides to move ahead with an investigation, it would mark the first time the court would serve as a venue for a case seeking to hold China accountable for its rights abuses in the XUAR.
Omer Kanat, executive director of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), called the filing a worthwhile effort.
“It’s a positive thing to try,” he told RFA. “The Chinese leaders should be held accountable for their crimes against humanity.”
Zenz, a senior fellow in China Studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, also welcomed the move as a new approach, but acknowledged that the court would have difficulty enforcing any decision against Beijing.
“It’s just a different strategy,” he said. “China will not recognize any ruling by the ICC, but it raises additional international attention and that would mostly have a symbolic effect.”
While China accepts that the creation of the ICC was a positive addition to the legal structure of global governance, it has refused to join the court and does not recognize its jurisdiction. Beijing maintains that its policies in the XUAR are preventative in nature, citing the pretext of terrorism and religious extremism, and believes that its policies in the region are purely internal affairs.
Rodney Dixon, the British lawyer who leads the legal team representing the two Uyghur groups, has said that the filing focuses on illegal actions that China has conducted in Cambodia and in Tajikistan—both of which are member states of the ICC. The Chinese government has allegedly dispatched agents to drive Uyghurs out of the two countries through forced deportations and extra-territorial arrests.
“China is not a signed-up member of the ICC … [and believes it] cannot be investigated for what is happening [in the XUAR],” Dixon said at a recent press conference. “This is a misbelief.”
“The fact is that we are now in a position where there is a very clear legal pathway to allow for the ICC to commence its investigations,” he said.
Dixon cited the November decision by the ICC to launch a full investigation into allegations of crimes against humanity and persecution over Myanmar’s 2017 military crackdown against the majority-Muslim Rohingya ethnic group.
More than 740,000 Rohingya were forced to flee over the border into sprawling camps in Bangladesh during the violence that U.N. investigators have said amounted to genocide and, while Myanmar is not a member of the ICC, the court decided it has jurisdiction over the case because Bangladesh is a member.
Challenging China’s narrative
As evidence of abuses in the XUAR continues to mount, Western governments have increasingly called out China for its policies in the region.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration leveled sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in Xinjiang, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment last month of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them.
Beijing describes the three-year-old network of camps as voluntary “vocational centers,” but reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
Earlier this month, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a long rebuttal to accusations against China’s human rights records, dismissing reports of the detention of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities as a rumor.
Adrian Zenz told RFA that Beijing has repeatedly “twisted the facts” about the situation in the XUAR, which he said further shows the need for the international community to work together to address what is happening in the region.
Dixon said the case is now in the hands of ICC Prosecutor Bensouda.
“We are hopeful that the prosecutor will prioritize this case, given the fact that persons are, as we speak, subject to the alleged crimes and torture,” he said.
Radio Free Asia Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036