The Fight for Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang: Why Economic Sanctions Are Not Enough

Tina Al-khersan
Vol. 42 Associate Editor

Human Rights Abuses in XUAR

Since the mid to late 1900s, the Chinese government has inflicted human rights abuses on the Turkic Muslim community in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).[1] These abuses intensified in 2014 when the Chinese government launched the “Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorism Campaign” against ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities.[2] Four years after the campaign launched, Human Rights Watch reported on its implications: political education camps. The Chinese government insisted that these camps were “boarding schools,” but corrective measures included tech-enabled mass surveillance, detention without charge, forced conversion, and torture and ill-treatment.[3]

These practices effectively outlawed the practice of Islam and violated fundamental rights like freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, in addition to protection from torture and unfair trials.[4] While the Chinese government has since claimed that all detained individuals have “graduated” from these camps, ethnic minorities maintain that their family members are still arbitrarily detained.[5] To date, Turkic Muslims have found no recourse in international law.

Examples of Applicable International Law

The Chinese government has ratified numerous international conventions that protect individuals from religious discrimination, but these conventions remain underenforced. First, the Chinese government has ratified the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). Article 1 forbids states from inflicting severe pain or suffering on a person to intimidate or coerce him or “for any reason based on discrimination of any kind” but “does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to, lawful sanctions.”[6] As UNCAT does not define “lawful sanctions,” the Chinese government is able to avoid liability by permitting acts that would constitute torture under international law as a legal form of punishment under domestic law.[7]

Second, the government ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights (ICESCR). ICESCR has a cultural rights provision that protects the right to participate and enjoy one’s culture against state intervention.[8] Culture as defined by the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) includes religion; therefore, the religious restrictions that the Chinese government places on the Uyghur community, like the banning of headscarves and limited issuance of travel documents for Hajj, violates Article 15.[9] Despite this, the CESCR has not held the Chinese government accountable during periodic reviews.[10]

Third, the Chinese Government has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which remains the sole treaty that contains provisions dedicated to freedom of religion or belief. However, China has yet to ratify the treaty, frustrating accountability efforts.[11]

U.S. Proposes Sanctions

As international law has yet to hold the Chinese government accountable, countries are turning to domestic policy. In January 2019, the U.S. became the first country to propose targeted sanctions against Chinese officials for their treatment of Turkic Muslims.[12] The proposed bill was amended multiple times until the Senate unanimously passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act in May 2020, and the House of Representatives then approved the bill.[13] President Trump signed it into law on June 17th, 2020.[14]

The Act implements property-blocking and visa sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for the repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and calls on U.S. companies and individuals operating in XUAR to ensure that their supply chains are not supported by forced labor of minority Muslims groups.[15] The Uyghur Human Rights Project has applauded the bill as an important milestone in addressing the plight of Turkic Muslims and the first step to comprehensive policy reform in China.[16]

Why Sanctions Are Not Enough

While the Chinese government must be held accountable for their oppression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, the international community must also consider the various implications of adopting targeted sanctions as the solution. First, sanctions are not guaranteed to be effective in securing the rights of Turkic Muslims; their success depends on numerous, somewhat unpredictable factors.[17] Moreover, economic pain alone is often insufficient to change a government’s behavior, so there must be high political costs for noncompliance.[18]  However, even when there are costs, a sanctioned country may still determine that the countervailing costs of compliance with the sanctioner’s demands are intolerable.[19] With at least one million Uyghurs detained and evidence that incarceration is on the rise, the situation is too dire to gamble on the effectiveness of sanctions.[20]

Sanctions also have a signaling function that relay the sanctioning country’s stance on a certain topic.[21] In this case, the sanctions encourage the Chinese government to view Turkic Muslims as commodities of the state that are important to the export of goods rather than individuals that deserve basic human rights. Therefore, while sanctions may result in beneficial results for detained Turkic Muslims in the short term, a more robust international legal framework is needed to ensure that the rights of Turkic Muslims – beyond their capacity to provide for the economy – are guaranteed in the long-term.

Lastly, the Chinese government may undermine the sanctions by drawing attention to the inconsistency of the enforcement of the rights of Muslims in China versus the U.S.[22] The stated purpose of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act is to address the human rights violations the Chinese government has carried out through mass surveillance and internment of Muslims.[23] While the U.S. has not created internment camps for Muslim Americans, it has used national security to justify its violations of the civil rights and liberties of American Muslims carried out through hyper-surveillance and arbitrary detention.[24] The Chinese government also relies on national security to justify it actions in XUAR.[25]  Therefore, the Chinese government may argue that the U.S. is seeking to enforce a standard that it itself has not embodied and that the sanctions walk a fine line between hypocrisy and imperialism.[26]

Ultimately, while international law fails to hold the Chinese government accountable and the U.S. gambles on potentially ineffective sanctions, it is Turkic Muslims who will continue to suffer.


[1] Natasha Parassram Concepcion, Human Rights Violations Against Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of Western China, (2000), https://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1474&context=hrbrief [hereinafter Concepcion].

[2] Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, Human Rights Watch (Sep. 9, 2018), https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/09/eradicating-ideological-viruses/chinas-campaign-repression-against-xinjiangs.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Yanan Wang, China Claims Everyone in Xinjiang Camps Has ‘Graduated’, AP News (Dec. 9, 2019), https://apnews.com/article/27f00e4feaa2755f25ab514cecda7add.

[6] United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment art. 1, opened for signature Dec. 10, 1984, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85, 113.

[7] Max Levalley, Xinjiang: The “New Frontier” Of State-Sanction Torture, MJIL Blog (Nov. 14, 2019), http://www.mjilonline.org/xinjiang-the-new-frontier-of-state-sanctioned-torture/ (arguing that because China claims individuals in the camps are there voluntarily, the camps are therefore not detention centers, which allows PRC to escape liability as Chinese law prohibits torture to extract confessions only when committed by judicial officers of detention centers).

[8] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights art. 15, Dec. 19, 1966, 993 U.N.T.S 3.

[9] Ross Holder, On the Interrelatedness of Human Rights, Culture and Religion: Considering the Significance of Cultural Rights in Protecting the Religious Identity of China’s Uyghur Minority, Trinity Centre Asian Stud (Jan. 30, 2020), https://www-tandfonline-com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/doi/epub/10.1080/13642987.2020.1725487?needAccess=true.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Uighur Act of 2019, S. 178, 116th Cong. (2019).

[13] Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, S.3744, 116th Congress (2020).

[14] Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, Pub. L. No. 116-145, 134 Stat. 648 (2020).

[15] Id. at § 4(7), 134 Stat. 650 and §§ (6)(c)(1-2), 134 Stat. 652.

[16] Press Release, Uyghur Human Rights Project, UHRP Thanks U.S. Senate for Passing Uyghur Human Rights (May 14, 2020) (on file with author).

[17] See generally, Jon Hovi et al., When Do (Imposed) Economic Sanctions Work?, 57 World Pol. 479 (2005) (arguing that a target country yields to imposed sanctions only if it initially underestimated the impact of sanctions, miscalculated the sender’s determination to impose them, or wrongly believed that sanctions would be imposed and maintained whether it yielded or not); see also, Jean-Marc F. Blanchard & Norrin M. Ripsman, Asking the Right Question: When Do Economic Sanctions Work Best? 9 Security Stud. 219 (2007) (arguing that economic coercion worked primarily because domestic and international political conditions existed that magnified the political costs of noncompliance for the target state).

[18] Jean-Marc F. Blanchard & Norrin M. Ripsman, Asking the Right Question: When Do Economic Sanctions Work Best? 9 Security Stud. 219, 220, 225-30 (2007).

[19] Id. at 224.

[20] Chris Buckley & Austin Ramzy, Night Images Reveal Many New Detention Sites in China’s Xinjiang Region, N.Y. Times (Sep. 24, 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/24/world/asia/china-muslims-xinjiang-detention.html.

[21] Macallee N. Goldman, An Ethics of Economic Sanctions (2016) (B.A. Honors Theses, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) (on file with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

[22] See Christopher Wall, Human Rights and Economic Sanctions: The New Imperialism, 22 Fordham Int’l L. J. 577, 602-04 (1998) [hereinafter Wall].

[23] Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, Pub. L. No. 116-145, §2, 134 Stat. 648, 648 (2020).

[24] See generally Saher Selod, Forever Suspect: Racialized Surveillance of Muslim Americans in the War on Terror (2018) (demonstrating how changes to the American criminal justice and national security systems resulted in the hyper surveillance of Muslim Americans and comprises their status as citizens); Irum Sheikh, Detained Without A Cause: Muslims’ Stories of Detention And Deportation in American After 9/11 (2011) (drawing on the narratives of six detained Muslim men to demonstrate how civil liberties of American Muslims were suspended after the September 11th attacks.

[25] China: Draconian Anti-Terror Law An Assault On Human Rights, Amnesty International (Mar. 4, 2015) https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/03/china-draconian-anti-terror-law/.

[26] See Wall, supra note 22, at 601.

The views expressed in this post represent the views of the post’s author only.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *