UK tribunal to investigate China's alleged genocide against Muslim Uighur population

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers

An independent tribunal in London will investigate the Chinese government’s alleged rights abuses against Uighur Muslims - and decide if they constitute genocide. The tribunal, convened by prominent human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, is expected to reveal new evidence and testimony over several days’ hearings next year.

While the tribunal does not have government backing, it is the latest attempt to hold China accountable for its treatment of the Uighurs and ethnic Turkic minorities, who have been subject to an unprecedented crackdown since 2017.

The announcement comes after ITV News heard from a Uighur doctor this week, who spoke of participating in at least 500 to 600 operations on Uighur women.

These included forced contraception, forced abortion, forced sterilisation and forced removal of wombs, she said.

Watch ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy's compelling report on alleged Uighur atrocities

In a statement following this and other reports, the Foreign Office said: ”The series of reports from ITV, add to the growing body of evidence on the serious violation of human rights against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

"The UK government is playing a leading role in coordinating international efforts to hold China to account for these violations and continues to raise concerns with Chinese officials.

“We also call on China to immediately implement UN recommendations in Xinjiang – to allow UN observers unfettered access to the region, and to end the widespread practice of extra-judicial detention."

Emma Murphy explains the importance of the statement from the Foreign Office

Barrister Sir Geoffrey, who previously led the prosecution of ex-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic over the Balkans war and worked with the International Criminal Court, was asked by the World Uighur Congress to investigate “ongoing atrocities and possible genocide” against the Uighur people. Allegations against China about potential genocide are “questions that should be asked and answered” but such claims have never been legally scrutinised in public, Sir Geoffrey said on Wednesday.

ITV News spoke to Nursiman Abdureshid who suddenly stopped hearing from her family in China:

Organisers are in the initial stages of gathering evidence, and expect to receive a substantial number of submissions from Uighurs exiled abroad over the next few months.

New evidence that may emerge includes testimony from several former security guards who were involved in the Xinjiang detention camps. “At the moment, the strongest evidence would appear to be evidence of incarceration and possibly evidence of enforced sterilisation,” Sir Geoffrey said.

Geoffrey Nice is convening the tribunal. Credit: AP

A recent investigation by the Associated Press found the Chinese government is systematically forcing birth control on Uighurs and other Muslims in an apparent effort to reduce their population.

The report found that authorities regularly subject minority women to pregnancy checks and force intrauterine devices, sterilisation and abortion on hundreds of thousands.

While scores have been thrown in detention camps for alleged “religious extremism", many others were sent to the camps simply for having too many children. Such enforced sterilisation practices could be found to breach the Genocide Convention, Sir Geoffrey said. The Chinese Embassy in London did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Gulbakhar Jalilova told ITV News she was tortured in one of the Chinese Uighur camps:

Chinese officials have repeatedly derided allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang as fabricated, and insist that all ethnicities are treated equally.

China has long suspected the Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim, of harbouring separatist tendencies because of their distinct culture, language and religion.

In a lengthy press conference in August, the Chinese ambassador to the UK played graphic videos of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang to show that the Chinese government’s measures there are “necessary and important". Ambassador Liu Xiaoming also called allegations about rights abuses in Xinjiang made in Western media “lies of the century", and denied that nearly one million Uighurs have been detained in Xinjiang.

ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward approached the Chinese government over the troubling claims in our report

The London tribunal’s judgement is not binding on any government.

However, Sir Geoffrey said that the process will nonetheless be one way to address the lack of action in tackling the alleged abuses by “filling the gap with reliable information". “There is no other way of bringing the leadership of the (Chinese) Communist Party collectively or individually to judgement,” Sir Geoffrey said. In July, lawyers representing exiled Uighur activists filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court against China, asking the court in The Hague, Netherlands, to investigate the forced repatriation of thousands of Uighurs from Cambodia and Tajikistan and alleged genocide in Xinjiang.

A Uighur woman and children sit on a motor-tricycle after school. Credit: Andy Wong/AP

However, Beijing does not recognise the international court’s jurisdiction, and Sir Geoffrey — who is not involved in that case — said it will likely focus more on the repatriating countries’ culpability and less on that of Chinese authorities. The World Uighur Congress, an international organisation representing Uighur exiles, has provided initial evidence and funding to the London tribunal.

Organisers expect to hold two public hearings in London next year, each lasting several days. The tribunal will comprise of at least seven members who will act as jury.

They include British property businessman Nicholas Vetch, one of the organisers. A verdict is expected by the end of 2021.

The families of Uighurs living in China cling to the photographs of their missing loved ones:

Darren Byler, an academic studying Uighurs at the University of Colorado, said that, despite its limitations, the tribunal is an important step because it can provide a “detailed and legal accounting of what has transpired” and add perspective to the prevailing US-centric reaction to the issue. “So far the world response to what is happening to the Uighurs and Kazakhs in Northwest China has been largely confined to unilateral actions by the United States and been associated with President Trump’s more general anti-China position," Mr Byler said.

"An independent investigation conducted from outside of the U.S. will be helpful in adding an additional perspective.” In July, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on three senior Chinese Communist Party officials for alleged human rights abuses targeting Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other minorities in Xinjiang, including mass detention and forced population control.