Why China’s Treatment of the Uighur Minority Warrants an Investigation into Acts of Genocide

Inés Fernández Gallego, Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Inés Fernández Gallego holds a Law degree from the University of Valencia and an LLM in Public International Law from Utrecht University, specialising in international human rights law.


In its Drélingas v. Lithuania judgment, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Genocide Convention can be raised when the aggressor’s conduct that falls within the scope of Article II of the Genocide Convention is carried out with an intent to physically destroy a part of a national-ethnic group that is composed of its most active and prominent members, regardless of their numbers, given their essential role in protecting the national identity, culture and national self-awareness of a protected national-ethnic group. Whilst China’s treatment of the Uighur minority has been extensively studied from the perspective of ‘cultural genocide’, there is evidence suggesting that some acts carried out against certain Uighur figures, amid a wider context of political and cultural oppression, resemble those encompassed in Article II GC. If true, China’s actions could amount not only to cultural genocide, but also to genocide (within the scope of the Genocide Convention), due to the existence of certain key similarities between this case and the situation in the Drélingas v. Lithuania case.


Since the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention or GC) entered into force in 1951, international courts and tribunals have interpreted its provisions in a dynamic and evolutive manner. The European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) Drélingas v. Lithuania judgment, in 2019, was the first time that a supranational court ruled that the Genocide Convention can be raised when the aggressor’s conduct that falls within the scope of Article II GC is carried out with an intent to physically destroy a part of a national-ethnic group that is composed of its most active and prominent members, regardless of their numbers, given their essential role in protecting the national identity, culture and national self-awareness of a protected national-ethnic group (para. 103).

China’s treatment of the Uighur national minority has been extensively studied from the perspective of ‘cultural genocide’, which is not recognised as a form of genocide under international law. However, credible and widespread reports show that some acts carried out against politically and culturally active and prominent Uighur individuals, amid a wider context of political and cultural oppression, resemble those encompassed in Article II GC. Whilst, if true, China’s actions could amount to cultural genocide, some similarities between this case and the situation in the Drélingas judgment suggest that they, too, could fall within the scope of the Genocide Convention.

The specific aim of this paper is not to prove the existence of a genocide against the Uighurs. Instead, this paper argues that even if China lacked an intent to physically destroy the entire national-ethnic group, this should not bar the international community from investigating whether acts of genocide are taking place. In putting forward this argument, the paper starts by describing the legal and political background to the Genocide Convention, followed by an explanation of some key terms found in Article II GC’s definition of genocide. The paper then analyses the role given to the Lithuanian nation’s representatives in the Drélingas judgment. Following this, it examines some key background information to the Uighurs’ situation, before laying out the reasons why such situation warrants an investigation into acts of genocide. In this regard, the paper first examines whether the Uighur minority is among the groups enumerated in Article II GC, and therefore protected. Secondly, it lays out and evaluates the evidence suggesting that acts described in Article II GC are being carried out against the Uighurs, through a series of policies. Lastly, it assesses whether the intent of such policies is genocidal. The paper concludes that, whilst it is clear that the Uighur are undergoing a cultural genocide, the international community should thoroughly investigate whether acts of genocide, within the meaning of the Genocide Convention, are also occurring.

The Journey to the Genocide Convention

The term ‘genocide’ was initially coined by Raphael Lemkin, who is colloquially known as the ‘Father of the Genocide Treaty’ due to his instrumental role in the drafting of the Genocide Convention (Hamilton, 2010, p. 643; Krstic, ICTY [Appeal] para. 10). The concept derived from the Greek genos, meaning ‘race’ or ‘tribe’, and the Latin suffix cide, which means ‘killing’ (Lemkin, 1944, p. 79). In his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Lemkin defined genocide as “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves” (p. 79).

Subsequently, lobbied by Lemkin and passed unanimously, the UN General Assembly Resolution 96 of 11 December 1946, titled The Crime of Genocide, elevated the term to an international crime. Resolution 96 spoke in terms of the protection of human groups, specifically mentioning “racial, religious, political and other groups”. Furthermore, in 1947, in an article for the American Journal of International Law, Lemkin wrote that the term ‘genocide’ arose from the need to formulate a legal concept that described the destruction of human groups (p. 147). In the drafting of the subsequent Genocide Convention, however, fears that a broad definition of genocide would discourage states from ratifying the convention led to the drafting of a definition of genocide much narrower than that originally envisioned in Resolution 96 (Hamilton, 2010, p. 645; Nersessian, 2010, pp. 104 ff.). In this regard, “political and other groups” were omitted from the Genocide Convention, which was eventually adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948.

For anyone familiar with the preparatory works of the Genocide Convention, it is hard to deny that the exclusion of political groups from protection under Article II had political undertones (UN GAOR 6th Comm. 3rd Session A/760/Corr. 2, p. 834; Schabas, 2000, pp. 139-40). In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union was heavily involved with the ‘Sovietisation’ of Eastern Europe. In pursuing these policies, Soviet forces had carried out, in recent years, numerous massacres to eliminate political opposition throughout Eastern Europe (Nersessian, 2010, p. 106). In that context, the Soviet Union would not have signed a treaty that covered political groups, as its own recent policies would have inevitably been questioned (Nersessian, 2010, p. 106). In the polarised post-World War II world, many other states would likely have followed the Soviet Union and also refused to sign the treaty. Therefore, while the records of the drafting process show that most states involved valued political groups as worthy of the same protection against destruction as national, ethnic, racial and religious groups, and initially hoped and voted for their inclusion in the Genocide Convention (see for example: UN Economic and Social Council, 1948, France, USA, China and Lebanon records), they eventually prioritised achieving a wider consensus sooner (Nersessian, 2010, p. 106).

The Crime of Genocide under International Law

In broad terms, genocide requires its perpetrators to carry out a certain prohibited conduct with an “intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” (Article II GC).

The objective element of genocide has two dimensions. Firstly, it involves the carrying out of certain prohibited conducts; secondly, it relates to a specific targeted group. The conducts are: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (Article II GC). Furthermore, the targeted group must be a national, ethnical, racial or religious group (Article II GC).

Likewise, the subjective element has two requirements. Firstly, it requires the criminal intent required to commit the specific offence, such as the intent to kill in the case of the act contemplated in Article II (a) GC (Darfur Report, para. 491). Secondly, it requires the perpetrator to have an aggravated criminal intent (dolus specialis): to destroy the group in whole or in part. In other words, the perpetrator has to consciously want the prohibited conduct to result in the destruction, in whole or in part, of the group as such, and the perpetrator has to know that the conduct will destroy, in whole or in part, the group as such.

The concept ‘in whole or in part’ refers to the perpetrator’s mens rea, not to the result (Schabas, 2000, p. 277). Following a quantitative approach to the term ‘in part’, a part of a group may fall within the scope of the Genocide Convention if it is substantial (numerically). The qualitative approach, on the other hand, entails that the destruction may target only one portion of the group, regardless of its size, because the perpetrators view its destruction as sufficient to destroy it in its entirety. Whilst judicial practice has traditionally placed greater importance on the substantiality requirement, it accepts a qualitative approach when the destruction of the targeted part would compromise the continued existence of the entire group.

The term ‘as such’ implies that the entity targeted is the group, not the individual (Akayesu, ICTR, para. 522; Kayishema and Ruzindana, ICTR, para. 99). So, destroying the individual is a means for achieving the ends of destroying the group: thus, the Genocide Convention protects the right to life of certain groups, ‘as such’ (Krstic, ICTY [Trial] para. 553). This trait distinguishes genocide from persecution, a crime against humanity, where the victims are targeted because of their membership in a specific group but the perpetrator does not necessarily seek to destroy the group as such, only (in some cases) the individuals targeted (for comparison, see Article 7 (2) (g) Rome Statute).

It can therefore be derived that international law only contemplates as genocide “the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups” (Lemkin, 1944, p. 79). In other words, it only classes as genocide the ‘physical’ or ‘biological’ destruction of a protected group. In contrast, the concept of ‘cultural genocide’ can be defined as the “disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups” (Lemkin, 1944, p. 79). In line with the above, the conduct known as cultural genocide is not recognised as a form of genocide by international law.

How the European Court of Human Rights’ Drélingas v. Lithuania judgment helped clarify some key differences between genocide and cultural genocide: the role of representatives

The case before Lithuanian courts

The Drélingas v. Lithuania judgment was the first time an international court ruled that the Genocide Convention can be raised when the aggressor’s conduct that falls within the scope of Article II (a)-(e) GC is carried out with an intent to physically destroy a part of a national-ethnic group composed of its most active members and representatives, regardless of their numbers, given their essential role in protecting the national identity, culture and national self-awareness of a protected national-ethnic group.

In this case the applicant, Stanislovas Drélingas, was a former member of the Ministry of State Security (MGB) and of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania (Drėlingas v. Lithuania, paras. 20-1). In 1956 he participated in the arrest of Vanagas, a leader of the Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance (Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 8), and his wife Vanda, who was a Lithuanian partisan and liaison person of the partisans in the Dainava Region (Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 16). Following the arrest, Vanagas was killed and Vanda was sentenced to deportation in Siberia (Drėlingas v. Lithuania, paras. 29-32). Drélingas was tried in 2014 and convicted as an accessory to genocide under Article 99 of the Lithuanian Criminal Code (LCC), which came into force in 2003 (Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 33). This provision, enacted after Lithuania gained independence, expands the list of protected groups provided for in the Genocide Convention by including political and social groups in addition to national, ethnical, racial and religious groups.

The case reached the Lithuanian Supreme Court (LSC). Because a conviction for genocide can only be applied retroactively in accordance with its definition under international law (Vasiliauskas v. Lithuania, para. 184), the issue at stake was whether the applicant’s conduct constituted genocide under international law at the time of the facts. To determine that, the LSC had to decide whether the scope of the Genocide Convention extended to Lithuanian partisans, consisting of the members of the Lithuanian resistance to Soviet occupation, their liaison persons and their supporters (Drélingas v. Lithuania, para. 103), including Vanagas and Vanda.

In its judgment, the LSC defined the Lithuanian nation in terms of ethnicity and nationality. In this sense, an ethnic group was “a community of persons with a common origin, language, culture, and self-identity”, while a national group was “a historically developed community of people belonging to a certain nation, formed on the basis of language, territory, socioeconomic life, culture, national self-identity and other common characteristics” (LSC decision, para. 18 in Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 50). As such, Lithuanians were (or the Lithuanian nation was) a ‘national-ethnic group’, protected by the Genocide Convention. Meanwhile, Lithuanian partisans who engaged in armed resistance to Soviet occupation were described as a ‘national-ethnic-political group’ (LSC decision, para. 13 in Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 50).

Moreover, the LSC determined that Lithuanian partisans, as a distinct entity, formed, not only a substantial, but also a qualitatively significant part of the Lithuanian national-ethnic group. In this regard, the LSC found that the destruction of this distinct entity by Soviet forces “had the clear aim of influencing the demographic changes of the Lithuanian nation and its very survival, (…) facilitating the sovietisation of the occupied Lithuania” (LSC decision, para. 25 in Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 51). In other words, the LSC ruled that destroying the Lithuanian ‘national-ethnic-political group’ would result in the destruction of the Lithuanian national-ethnic group. This was not only because they represented a large number of people (around 150,000) and a substantial proportion of the population of 2.3 million but also because they played an essential role in ensuring the existence of the Lithuanian nation (LSC decision, paras. 26 and 29-30 in Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 52).

Consequently, the LSC upheld Drélingas’ conviction and he appealed against it before the ECtHR under Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – “no punishment without law”. Specifically, he complained that the wide interpretation adopted by Lithuanian courts departed from the scope of genocide as laid down in international law, and therefore his conviction breached the principle of non-retroactivity (Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 76).

The ECtHR’s decision

In its 2019 judgment, the ECtHR found that there had been no breach of Article 7 of the ECHR. It ruled that, because they had played an essential role in protecting the national identity, culture and national self-awareness of a protected national-ethnic group, the destruction of Lithuanian partisans fell within the scope of the Genocide Convention (Drélingas v. Lithuania, para. 103). At first sight, this reasoning may seem to be based on the notion of cultural genocide.

However, whilst the Genocide Convention only prohibits the commission of ‘physical’ as opposed to ‘cultural’ genocide, this refers to the nature of the acts but not necessarily the intent (Krstic, ICTY [Appeal], Judge Shahabuddeen dissenting opinion ‘DO’, paras. 53-4). It can be derived from the ECtHR’s judgment in Drélingasthat the status of national-ethnic groups in the Genocide Convention has two dimensions. Firstly, any nation is protected. Secondly, a nation’s active and prominent figures can fall under the scope of the protected ‘part’ of the group, regardless of their numbers, when they are essential in protecting the nation’s culture and national identity and self-awareness (Drélingas v. Lithuania, para. 103).

Parting from the LSC’s definition of national and ethnic groups whereby a protected group (in this case the Lithuanian nation) is essentially formed as a result of the group identity of its members, surely, eradicating this group identity results in the destruction, physical and otherwise, of the group. In other words, if the group exists because of its members’ self-perception of belonging to the group, should this self-perception cease to exist the group would consequently cease to exist. Because the group existed due to a set of shared cultural features, it can be destroyed by putting an end to these cultural attributes. This idea seems to echo Rafter (2016, pp. 24-5), who described genocide as the destruction of the social or the physical characteristics that make up a group, as well as the Father of the Genocide Treaty himself (Lemkin, 1944, p. 79). Thus, by adding that a socially constructed group can be destroyed by destroying the group’s sense of identity, this line of thought builds upon the ‘theory of imagined identities’. This theory argues that all group identities are socially constructed and entirely subjective (Verdirame, 2000, p. 592 in Darfur Report, para. 499) rather than being physical, natural or hereditary, which is the argument posed by some proponents of objective approaches to group identity (see for example Akayesu, ICTR, paras. 512-4).

Judge Shahabuddeen made an interesting point in this respect in his dissenting opinion in Krstic’s appeal judgment (ICTY, Case No. IT-98-33-T, 2 August 2001), regarding the genocide in Srebrenica. He argued that the proposition that the intended destruction must always be physical or biological “overlooks a distinction between the nature of the listed “acts” and the “intent” with which they are done” (Krstic, ICTY [Appeal], Judge Shahabuddeen DO, para. 48). According to him, the question in Krstic was whether, to prove genocide, “it was necessary to show that the intent with which the individuals were killed was to cause the physical or biological destruction of the Srebrenica part of the Bosnian Muslim group” (Krstic, ICTY [Appeal], Judge Shahabuddeen DO, para. 49). In his opinion, a group is constituted by characteristics which are often intangible. Thus, if those characteristics, tangible or intangible, are destroyed through the commission of a listed act of physical or biological nature and with the required genocidal intent, it is illogical “that the destruction, though effectively obliterating the group, is not genocide because the obliteration was not physical or biological” (Krstic, ICTY [Appeal], Judge Shahabuddeen DO, para. 50).

Judge Shahabuddeen did not propose that the destruction of the culture of a group should be recognised as genocide under international law (Krstic, ICTY [Appeal], Judge Shahabuddeen DO, para. 53). Rather, he claimed that the “nature” of the act must be physical or biological, in accordance with the nature of the acts in Article II GC (with the exception of Article II (e) GC, which does not involve the physical destruction of the victims and is therefore considered to be considered cultural in nature (Schabas, 2007, para. 19)). But, he added, the “intent” to destroy the group “as a group” can be proved by evidence of an intent to destroy the cultural features of the group, except where physical destruction is expressly required in the law (Krstic, ICTY [Appeal], Judge Shahabuddeen DO, paras. 53-4). For example, in Krstic, it was determined that the destruction of a mosque (an act of a cultural nature) confirmed an intent to physically destroy the Muslim community of Srebrenica (Krstic, ICTY [Appeal], Judge Shahabuddeen DO, para. 53).

In fact, such approach was not dissimilar to that of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In Bosnia v. Serbia(para. 190), the ICJ recognised that whether a particular operation described as ethnic cleansing (arguably a form of cultural genocide) constitutes genocide “depends on the presence or absence of acts listed in Article II [GC], and of the intent to destroy the group as such. (…) [I]t is clear that acts of “ethnic cleansing” may occur in parallel to acts prohibited by Article II of the Convention, and may be significant as indicative of the presence of a specific intent (…) inspiring those acts”.

Against this backdrop, this paper argues that the ECtHR’s decision is in line with the jurisprudence of international courts and tribunals. Even if killing the leaders of the Lithuanian resistance was done with the intent of destroying the cultural characteristics that created the group of Lithuanian partisans, this can still be considered evidence of genocidal intent. With the “nature” of the acts being physical or biological, that the “intent” of the perpetrator was, in a way, cultural or sociological does not prevent the case from falling within the scope of genocide under international law. In other words, the cultural (as opposed to physical or biological) qualitative significance of the Lithuanian partisans in relation to the Lithuanian nation does not prevent Lithuanian partisans from being a significant part of the protected group, thus protected under the Genocide Convention.

Recently, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been accused of carrying out conduct which resembles the acts described in Article II GC against certain members of the Uighur community, in order to facilitate the full cultural assimilation into Chinese culture, known as ‘Sinicization’, of this community (see Finnegan, 2020; Zenz, 2019; Human Rights Watch, 2018). Whilst, if the accusations were true, the CCP’s actions could amount to cultural genocide, the ECtHR’s Drélingas judgment suggests that they, too, could be judged under the Genocide Convention as genocide. The following section gives some background information to the Uighurs’ situation, before laying out the reasons why such situation warrants an investigation into acts of genocide.

A brief history of Uighur nationalism and oppression

Most Uighurs live in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang or XUAR), a North-western province of China with a Uighur-majority population, which was annexed by China in the eighteenth century (Human Rights Watch, 2005, p. 11). A Turkic-speaking national-ethnic minority, the Uighurs have a long history of rebelling against Chinese rule, but nationalist unrest grew stronger in the 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Because of the prevalence of ethnic Turkic population in the former-Soviet Central Asian Republics, when these territories became independent, the pro-independence movement in Xinjiang gained momentum, feeling that they, also, were entitled to national self-determination (Hyer, 2006, p. 79). While Chinese authorities initially claimed that the protests had been carried out by only “a handful of separatists”, since 11 September 2001 the government has connected the protests to international terrorism (Human Rights Watch, 2005, p. 16). To gain the support of the international community, the CCP portrayed the secessionist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as having direct links with Osama bin Laden and aspiring to launch a holy war to set up an Islamic state in Xinjiang (Information Office of the State Council of the PRC, 2002 in Clarke, 2007, pp. 337-8).

In the aftermath of 9/11, despite the absence of evidence that terrorist attacks were being orchestrated by the ETIM or other separatist groups, the Chinese and Xinjiang governments justified their repression of peaceful and lawful activities by arguing that “‘separatist thought’ is the new approach followed by dissident organizations that previously used violent tactics” and peaceful activists are “presumably waiting for the right moment to revert to their previous methods” (Human Rights Watch, 2005, pp. 19 and 21). This pre-emptive rationale was used by the CCP to justify arrests, heavy sentences and even the imposition of the death penalty on dissenting writers or non-violent groups advocating minority rights who were accused of and charged with terrorism (Human Rights Watch, 2005, pp. 19 and 21).

China passed its Counter-Terrorism Law (CTL) in 2015, whose scope was extended in Xinjiang by means of XUAR’s Implementing Rules on the Counter-Terrorism Law (XUAR-CTL). The latter “aims to prevent the spread of extremist ideas, whereas the counterterrorism law deals with terrorist acts” (Tiantian, 2017). The definition of terrorism in Article 3 XUAR-CTL is so broad that, “activities that may fall within the scope of legitimate religious practices in other jurisdictions are otherwise rendered as criminal acts” (Li, 2016, p. 381). As the US Department of State (2018) noted, China’s counter-terrorist activities are hard to distinguish from its suppression of ethnic-nationalism.

Under Article 38 XUAR-CTL, individuals who have been coerced to participate in terrorist or extremist activities which “do not yet constitute crimes” (Article 38 XUAR-CTL) can be detained in so-called vocational centres (detention camps). According to the Xinjiang government’s official website, the establishment of the centres responds to an urgent need to curb the “frequent occurrence of violent and terrorist cases and to eradicate the breeding ground for religious extremism” (XUAR Government Website, 2019). However, some activities that, according to China, cause national insecurity (defined as an external threat to a state’s sovereignty), in reality, only pose a threat to societal security (which concerns the protection of a society’s identity) (Clarke, 2007, p. 325). An example of this is Article 6(6) XUAR-CTL in connection with Article 3 XUAR-CTL. In addition, often Uighurs are detained without a charge when authorities suspect that they are practicing Islam. Examples of those arrested include restaurant owners who do not allow drinking alcohol or smoking in their restaurant and people who share Islamic teachings online (Human Rights Watch, 2018, p. 32).

In addition, no independent monitoring of these institutions is allowed and, according to former detainees, should they hope to ever be released, detainees are required to denounce their religious beliefs, language and culture and to assimilate into the Chinese language and culture instead (Human Rights Watch, 2018, pp. 3 and 35ff.). With over 3 million people either interned or forced to attend day and evening “study sessions”, there are widespread, credible reports of deaths, torture, and systemic political indoctrination in these institutions (Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2018, p. 3; Human Rights Watch, 2018, pp. 35ff. and 47ff ). Meanwhile, intellectuals and political and religious leaders who “keep the Uyghur culture alive through their dissemination of Uyghur history, knowledge, religious beliefs and language” (Finnegan, 2020, p. 10) have been sentenced to death for peacefully advocating the national self-determination of Xinjiang, under the name ‘Uyghuristan’ (Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2018, pp. 8-13).

Combined with the general policy of detaining individuals for practising their culture, the policy of killing, torturing and indoctrinating the most politically and culturally active Uighur risks destroying the Uighurs’ unique culture and national identity and self-awareness. Whilst Soviet propaganda disguised the genocide in Lithuania by framing it as ‘a central government’s fight against gangs’, as opposed to a ‘national resistance war’ (Vasiliauskas v. Lithuania, ECtHR, Judge Ziemele DO, para. 12), this resonates with the ongoing situation in Xinjiang, where the War on Terror is being used as a pretext to uphold the current legal framework that regulates national security, which formalises and systematises an intense suppression of non-violent Uighur culture and nationalism.

In line with the Drélingas judgment, if it can be demonstrated that China is carrying out acts which are described in Article II (a)-(e) GC against the most active and prominent members of the Uighur nation, intending to physically destroy them; that China does not intend to physically destroy the entire Uighur nation should not bar scholars and the international community from examining this situation from the perspective of genocide (as opposed to cultural genocide). Thus, the following sections evaluate, firstly, whether the Uighur minority is protected under Article II GC; secondly, whether any of the acts described in Article II GC are being carried out against the Uighurs (actus reus); finally, whether there is a genocidal intent behind such acts (mens rea).

The Uighur as a group protected under the Genocide Convention

In order to assess whether the Genocide Convention could be applied to the present case, it must first be established that the Uighur are among the groups protected in Article II GC. Concretely, they are a national-ethnic group (or nation), defined as a “community of people historically formed on the basis of a common language, territory, socioeconomic life, culture and national self-identity, with a common national, political and economic perspective” (LSC decision, para. 18 in Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 50).

The Uighur are a Turkic-speaking community of about 11 million, whose ancestors are traced back to the nomadic tribes who inhabited, in the seventh century, nowadays’ Southern Xinjiang (Human Rights Watch, 2005, p. 10). Their main religious traditions are moderate Sunni Islam and Sufism and they are a mostly rural population of commercial and cultural brokers, who were historically connected by the Silk Road (Human Rights Watch, 2005, pp. 12-3).

Self-identity refers to an individual’s awareness of what makes them who they are. In turn, national self-identity refers to an individual’s awareness of belonging to a group composed of people who share a common culture, history and national, political and economic outlook. National self-identity does not necessarily correlate with citizenship. In this respect, most Uighur have never fully accepted Chinese domination of Xinjiang (Human Rights Watch, 2005, pp. 13-4) and consider themselves different to China linguistically, culturally and historically (Hyer, 2006, p. 78).

According to the Human Rights Watch 2005 Devastating blows report, whilst Xinjiang was annexed by China in the eighteenth century, the central government’s effective control was temporarily lost as a result of the population’s opposition to Chinese rule (p. 11). In 1944, the Soviet Union backed an independent state under the name ‘East Turkistan Republic’, but negotiations between Stalin and Mao led to its reincorporation into China in 1949 (p. 11). The CCP promoted mass migration of ethnic Chinese (Han) into Xinjiang, to the point where the proportion of ethnic Chinese increased from 6 percent in 1949 to 41.5 percent in 1976 (p. 11). This policy sparked discontent among the Uighur, who, making up around half of the population, are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang (p. 10). Firstly, they felt that their culture was being “diluted” (Clarke, 2007, n 5). Secondly, the Han population benefitted from the economic development in Xinjiang far more than the non-Han population, who remained politically and socioeconomically marginalised (Clarke, 2007, pp. 334-5). In relation to the rest of China, Xinjiang lags behind socioeconomically and, in relation to the Han population in the province, so do the Uighur – for example, their life expectancy is on average 10 years lower (Human Rights Watch, 2005, pp. 10 and 12).

The break-up of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian Republics, whose predominantly Turkic-speaking populations share cultural and ethnical links with the Uighurs, “invigorated the nationalist independence movement among Uighurs in Xinjiang” (Hyer, 2006, p. 78). According to Hyer (2006, p. 79), the “pro-independence demonstrations and other activities in 1997 were not momentary disturbances, but have deep historical and religious roots and will likely persist for the foreseeable future”.

Finally, deriving from the theory of imagined identities, all group identities are socially constructed and can only be determined subjectively, not objectively (Verdirame, 2000, p. 592 in Darfur Report, para. 499). Accordingly, a group is protected against genocide to the extent that the perpetrators perceive the shared identity of its members to possess the features socially associated with an ethnic, racial, religious or national group. In this regard, stigmatisation is a central element of the subjective approach to group identification. Uighur opponents to Chinese rule have been stigmatised throughout history, which increases the distrust between the Uighur and ethnic Chinese communities in Xinjiang. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were labelled ethnic-nationalists; in the 1970s and 1980s, counterrevolutionaries; in the 1990s, separatists; and currently, terrorists (Human Rights Watch, 2018, p. 8). These labels also reflect that the Uighur are seen as a national-ethnic group, particularly given that the CCP equates separatism (typically a nationalistic movement) with terrorism and extremism (describing them as ‘the three evil forces’) (Human Rights Watch, 2005, p. 10).

In brief, the Uighur, as a national-ethnic group, are protected under Article II GC.

Actus reus

Article II (a) GC: Killing of members of a protected group

In 2014-2016, Xinjiang launched a ‘strike hard’ campaign against terrorism (Amnesty International, 2017, pp. 29-30). Since then, prominent Uighur intellectuals have been sentenced to death for advocating separatism (Hoshur and Lipes, 2018; Illmer, 2019; Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2018, pp. 8-13). Usually, during this kind of campaign, the imposition of the death penalty, the lack of due process and wrongful executions tend to spike. However, according to the official records, no death sentence related to terrorism was imposed during that period (Amnesty International, 2017, pp. 29-30). Under domestic law, issues related to national security remain a state secret, so executions involving terrorism or separatism may not be recorded in the official database (Amnesty International, 2017, pp. 29-30). Therefore, whilst it is known that prominent Uighur intellectuals are being sentenced to death for advocating separatism, the exact magnitude of this issue remains unknown (Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2018, pp. 3ff.; Amnesty International, 2018, pp. 6ff.).

Article II (b) GC: Causing of serious bodily or mental harm to members of a protected group

Serious bodily and mental harm “results in a grave and long-term disadvantage to a person’s ability to lead a normal and constructive life” which must be assessed on a case-by-case basis (Krstic, ICTY [Trial], paras. 512-3). In the trial against Adolf Eichmann, the District Court of Jerusalem stated that serious bodily or mental harm of members of the group can be caused “by their detention in ghettos, transit camps and concentration camps in conditions which were designed to cause their degradation, deprivation of their rights as human beings, and to suppress them and cause them inhumane suffering and torture” (District Court of Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann Case, para. 199 in Akayesu, ICTR, para. 503).

In Xinjiang, reports of former detainees note their subjection to immense suffering in the camps, including having been forced to stand up for 24 hours, not having been fed for a week and having been forced to wear a metal outfit which does not let one bend their head for twelve hours (Human Rights Watch, 2005, pp. 47ff.). Under custody, women have been raped and subjected to sexual abuse (Hoja, RFA, 2019). Deaths in the camps have been recorded, some presumably caused by violent treatment or torture by authorities and others, by suicide (Human Rights Watch, 2005, pp. 47ff.; Hoshur and Lipes, 2017; Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2018, pp. 8-13). Detainees are constantly under surveillance, and so are the other Uighurs living in Xinjiang (Raza, 2019, p. 493; Human Rights Watch, 2018, pp. 15, 40, 75, 77; Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2020, pp. 3-7; Hoja, FT, 2019; Danilova, 2018). In addition, there is an increasing number of prominent intellectuals and community leaders who keep disappearing and of detained people who are held incommunicado, which often results in torture or ill-treatment (Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2018, pp. 3ff.).

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has also uncovered that an estimated 80,000 Uighur are subjected to forced labour, through a scheme facilitated by the government (Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2020, p. 3).

In Xinjiang’s camps, detainees are subjected to severe physical and psychological trauma and, upon release, most are unable to lead a normal and constructive life and many of them turn to alcohol (Hoja, RFA, 2019). Even those who have family abroad often cannot leave Xinjiang, as they are denied passports (Hoja, RFA, 2019; Hoja, FT, 2019).

The testimony of a former detainee in China’s re-education camps, found in Human Rights Watch’s Eradicating ideological viruses 2018 report (p. 50) represents the general feeling of severe anxiety among members of the Uighur community, caused by the legal uncertainty and arbitrariness surrounding detention:

I couldn’t bear it anymore. I hit my head on the wall and I had the feeling of powerless, helplessness, and rage. I lost consciousness and when I woke up I was in a doctor’s room. They had taken me to a hospital. So, they examined me and said my head was seriously injured. The guard said, ‘We’re going to sentence you for another seven years for having attempted suicide’.

Article II (d) GC: Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group

According to Zenz (2020), “comprehensive new evidence from government documents reveals a systematic state campaign of suppressing minority births”, including Uighur. Government policies in this regard include handing out monetary incentives for undergoing sterilisation, punishing individuals with detention for violating birth control policies and forcing surgical and medicine-induced sterilisation. This is supported not only by anecdotical evidence of such policies, through first and second-hand testimonies (for example: Hoja, RFA, 2019; Danilova, 2018), but also by the dramatic decrease in population growth in Uighur-majority regions. According to the 2019 Moyu County People’s Government Work Report, “the birth rate and natural population growth rate have dropped significantly”, whilst authorities have continued to “severely crack down on illegal childbirth”. In Karakax County, for example, population growth dropped by 83 percent between 2016 and 2018 (Zenz, 2020).

Article II (e) GC: Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

Evidence suggests that Xinjiang has established a system of forcible separation of children from their parents (Uighur national-ethnic group), placing them under state custody (Chinese national-ethnic group) from a very young age (Zenz, 2019; Sharma, 2019). The facilities are highly secured and tightly controlled, forcing “intensive, state-controlled and highly coercive Chinese language education and immersion, along with political indoctrination and psychological correction” (Zenz, 2019). Children are forced to report on their parents and parental influence and intergenerational cultural and religious transmission are “quite possibly almost completely eliminated” (Zenz, 2019).

In brief, whilst there is no evidence of mass killings, there is evidence to suggest that other acts that fall under the scope of Article II GC could already be being perpetrated.

Mens rea

Overall intent

In Drélingas, the ECtHR determined that “Soviet repression had been targeted at the most active and prominent part of the Lithuanian nation (…), defined by the criteria of nationality and ethnicity”, with “the clear goal of creating an impact on the demographic situation of the Lithuanian nation” (Drėlingas v. Lithuania, para. 103).

‘Demographic situation’ refers to a territory’s “national or ethnic composition, language spoken, religion practised, or other cultural characteristics” that define the populations living in a given territory (Alfredsson, 2007, para. 7). Demography has sociological, rather than physical, connotations which implies that the intent of the perpetrator was to destroy the cultural characteristics that made up the group. Furthermore, because national-ethnic groups exist as a result of a set of sociological features (their members’ sense of shared culture and national identity and self-awareness), destroying those features would, in reality, destroy the group.

Drawing on Judge Shahabbuddeen’s dissenting opinion in \textit{Krstic}’s appeal judgment, the destruction of culture can be used as proof of intent to destroy a protected group (\textit{Krstic}, ICTY [Appeal], Judge Shahabuddeen DO, para. 53). The documented destruction of mosques and other elements of the Uighur lifestyle and culture (Sintash, 2020) and forced, systematic indoctrination of children and adults (Zenz, 2019) reinforces the view that the CCP’s counter-terrorist efforts in Xinjiang are taking place amid a wider context that suggests that the War on Terror may be being used as a pretext to destroy the protected group by eradicating their culture and national identity and self-awareness (Raza, 2019, pp. 495-8; Li, 2016; Finnegan, 2020; Ramzy and Buckley, 2019; Zenz, 2019).

Active and prominent

According to the online Cambridge Dictionary, to be active means to be “involved in a particular activity”, while something prominent is “very noticeable, important, or famous”.

Some aspects of China’s counter-terrorist policy specifically target community, cultural, and intellectual leaders who “keep the Uyghur culture alive through their dissemination of Uyghur history, knowledge, religious beliefs and language” (Finnegan, 2020, p. 10). The research conducted by different international news and non-governmental organisations shows “a very clear pattern that Uighur academics who have been researching Uighur culture, and those with international contacts have been targeted” (Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2018, p. 5). For example, state-produced films reveal that some high-profile Uighur intellectuals, such as Halmurat Ghopur, president of the Xinjiang Food and Drug Administration’s Department of Inspection and Supervision and former president of Xinjiang Medical University Hospital, are being given two-year suspended death sentences on separatism charges (Hoshur and Lipes, 2017; Illmer, 2019) which, taking other factors into consideration, could fit within the scope of Article II (a) GC.


In line with the reasoning in Drélingas, a ‘part’ of a national-ethnic group may be significant within the meaning of the Genocide Convention if the perpetrators consider its members essential to ensure the survival of the entire group as such (Drélingas v. Lithuania, para. 103). According to its ordinary meaning, the term ‘essential’ is synonymous with ‘necessary’, which means “needed in order to achieve a particular result” (Cambridge Dictionary). Meanwhile, ‘survival’ means “continuing to exist” (Cambridge Dictionary). The final step is, therefore, to establish whether those who are targeted for physical destruction are necessary to ensure their nation’s continued existence.

For it to be genocidal, the aggressor can destroy the ‘essential part’ of the group with the objective of facilitating the cultural assimilation of its society. In Drélingas, the elimination of the Lithuanian partisans aimed to facilitate the Sovietisation of Lithuanian society (LSC decision, para. 25 in Drélingas v. Lithuania, para. 51) and the victims had been chosen with that goal in mind (Drélingas v. Lithuania, para. 103). Similarly, in Krstic the ICTY determined that ‘significant’ meant that the aggressor “could not have failed to know (…) that this selective destruction of the group would have a lasting impact upon the entire group” (Krstic, ICTY [Trial], para. 595).

In Xinjiang, the relevant authorities cannot fail to know that destroying the part of the Uighur nation in charge of keeping “the Uyghur culture alive through their dissemination of Uyghur history, knowledge, religious beliefs and language” (Finnegan, 2020, p. 10), would have a serious and lasting impact on the group’s demographic situation. This is because intellectual, cultural and religious leaders constitute “the repository of cultural and scientific knowledge of a people, and in order to break the ethnicity you need to break the ethnic life” (Sharma, 2019), so this part of the group is necessary to ensure the survival of the Uighur national identity, culture and national self-awareness.

Amid the general widespread and systematic scheme of cultural genocide, there is a case that China could be destroying this part of the group with the aim of facilitating its aim to achieve the full assimilation of the Uighur community into Chinese culture, or, in other words, to destroy this national-ethnic group.


This paper has argued that China’s lack of intent to physically destroy the entire national-ethnic group should not prevent a full examination of the ongoing situation in Xinjiang under the Genocide Convention. There is evidence to suggest that acts falling under the scope of Article II GC are already being perpetrated against the most outspoken and active Uighur individuals, within a wider context of extreme suppression of Uighur cultural and national realisation which aims to facilitate the full Sinicization of the Xinjiang province. Whilst it is clear that the Uighur are undergoing a cultural genocide, it is time for the international community to thoroughly investigate whether acts of genocide, within the meaning of the Genocide Convention, are also occurring.


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A Norm-in-Formation? An Analysis of Brazil and China’s Normative Engagement with the Responsibility to Protect

Joseph Jegat, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

Joseph graduated from the University of Leeds in 2016.

The question of whether the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an established norm in international relations has been the subject of much academic debate in recent years. This paper will argue that R2P is best described not as a fully established norm, but as a ‘norm-in-formation’ (Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014). It reaches this conclusion based on three assessments of R2P. First, R2P is a complex norm with a contested nature, which prevents it from being fully internalised by states. Second, contestation surrounding R2P’s Pillar III can actually help to consolidate and further establish the norm rather than weaken it. Third, Brazil and China are engaging with R2P in a way that contributes to its normative formation and establishment in international relations.

This article will be split into three sections. The first section will analyse the complex nature of the R2P norm and will show that contestation is both a normal and beneficial part of R2P’s global diffusion. The second section will assess the ways in which Brazil and China have contributed to the continued normative formation of R2P through their respective concepts of ‘Responsibility while Protecting’ and ‘Responsible Protection’. The third section will offer conclusive remarks.

R2P: A Complex and Contested Norm

Norms in the discipline of International Relations can describe two things. First, they can describe existing social realities, or how the world is. Second, they can describe an aspiration, providing a framework for how the world ought to be (Ralph and Souter, 2015, p.68). As a normative aspiration, R2P is clear. There exists shared expectation that states have a responsibility to protect their populations, and that if they fail to do so, then the international community should help to protect these populations. This basic premise of R2P was unanimously adopted in 2005 and outlined in paragraphs 138 – 140 of the World Summit Outcome Document (UNGA, 2005). Whether R2P is an existing social reality, however, is less clear, and will be the focus of this essay.

R2P is best described as a ‘complex norm’ (Welsh, 2013), as it contains at least two norms, concerning both the responsibility of individual states and of the international community (Bellamy, 2014, p.22). The responsibility of states to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing (Pillar I) is now a universally accepted norm embedded in international law. Pillar I has a high degree of what Jeffrey Legro (1997) terms ‘specificity’, meaning that it is clear and unambiguous, increasing the ‘compliance-pull’ of the norm (Franck, 1990, in Bellamy, 2014, p.7). The higher the specificity of a norm, the less open it is to contestation, which goes some way to explaining why Pillar I can be considered a fully consolidated norm in the discipline of International Relations. Pillar III (international intervention) on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Pillar II (international assistance), is much less universally accepted, partly because it lacks specificity, leaving it open to subjective interpretation.

The complex and sometimes ambiguous nature of R2P makes it especially vulnerable to criticism (Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, 2013; Garwood-Gowers, 2015). Pillar III in particular lacks conceptual clarity – highlighted, for example, by the lack of a threshold criteria for when international intervention becomes necessary and legitimate. For sceptics such as Aidan Hehir, the lack of clarity regarding intervention ‘influences the extent to which R2P can be deemed to constitute a “norm”’ (2013, p.151). Furthermore, Hehir (2013) argues that R2P had little, if any, influence over the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) decision to militarily intervene in Libya in 2011. Hehir’s criticisms highlight the fact that Pillar III remains highly contested, which prevents R2P as a whole from being considered fully established in International Relations.

Focusing solely on Pillar III, however, ignores the normative consolidation of both Pillars I and II. Although the 2011 Libyan intervention has somewhat stalled Pillar III progression, Pillar II has enjoyed widespread – although not absolute – support from states and has been the primary focus of the United Nations (UN) Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect since 2013 (Gallagher, 2015, p.1259). R2P has much more to it than just international military intervention. Perhaps paradoxically though, Pillar III contestation may help to further consolidate R2P in the long term.

Early Constructivist research on norms assumed that the ‘norm life cycle’ was a linear process, whereby norms emerge, cascade and become internalised in a progressive manner (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998), with a general assumption that once norms had become internalised they were set in stone. More recent work has shown, however, that norms remain contested even after states have internalised them. Norms are of an ‘inherently contested quality’ (Wiener and Puetter, 2009, p.7) better understood as dynamic ‘processes’ subject to ongoing dispute rather than ‘things’ as such (Krook and True, 2010). Norm contestation is, in fact, a regular feature of a norm’s life, which is not necessarily synonymous with normative regression (Hofmann, 2015; Garwood-Gowers, 2015).

If anything, contestation can actually help to clarify and reinforce a ‘norm-in-formation’. Cristina Badescu and Thomas Weiss (2010) find that misapplication of R2P has helped to consolidate the norm by clarifying the boundaries of the concept. For example, former French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher’s attempts to invoke R2P after 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Burma helped clarify that R2P was applicable only to the four crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing) and not for humanitarian assistance following natural disasters (Badescu and Weiss, 2010, p.362).

Following this logic, the fallout over NATO’s perceived misuse of R2P during the 2011 Libya intervention may help to clarify the boundaries of Pillar III military intervention. UN Resolution 1973 explicitly stated that authorisation had been granted for NATO to ‘take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack’ (emphasis added, UNSC, 2011, p.3). It did not authorise regime change, which led to widespread criticism that NATO had overstepped its mandate and used R2P to mask a Western led liberal intervention with the ultimate goal of democratisation. Although NATO’s military actions have led to significant backlash against Pillar III (Garwood-Gowers, 2015, p.320) – as is all too visible in the UNSC stalemate over Syria – in the long term, the lessons learnt from the misuse of Pillar III in Libya may help to clarify the boundaries of Pillar III military action which will help make the norm more legitimate and applicable in the future (Acharya, 2013).

Post-2011 Pillar III contestation has been of what Nicole Deitelhoff and Lisbeth Zimmermann (2013) define as ‘applicatory contestation’. Critics of the NATO intervention have taken issue with the way in which R2P’s Pillar III was interpreted and applied in Libya. They have not directed their criticism towards the more fundamental idea that the international community has a responsibility to protect populations when states are incapable or unwilling to do so. According to Deitelhoff and Zimmermann, this type of contestation usually strengthens a norm’s validity by helping to clarify the boundaries of its usage (2013, p.14). The second type of norm contestation is ‘justificatory’, which challenges core values and may lead to normative regression. Although there is some evidence that post-Libya contestation has been of a more challenging ‘justificatory’ nature (Garwood-Gowers, 2015), in general, states accept that international involvement is necessary is certain crises where mass atrocities have been committed (Bellamy, 2014; Evans, 2016). This suggests that the normative values of R2P may be more internalised than many critics assume.

Constructive engagement: Brazil and China 

The first part of this essay has argued that R2P is a complex norm, comprising multiple tenets that have been internalised to varying degrees. It has also shown that ‘applicatory contestation’ surrounding Pillar III can assist with conceptual clarification, helping the norm to become further established in the long term. The remainder of this essay will focus on the normative contributions made by Brazil and China, as these illustrate the continued formation of the R2P norm. These states have been selected as both have developed important concepts that aim to shape the trajectory of R2P’s advancement. Firstly, however, it is necessary to briefly explore the theoretical ways in which states can influence the development of a norm.

Norm diffusion describes the process by which global norms come to be accepted at the local level. This dynamic and active process is characterised by argumentation at the domestic and international level, which can both advance and restrain normative development (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015). States engage with this process in a bid to act as ‘norm makers’ rather than ‘norm takers’. Emerging powers such as Brazil and China are particularly keen to be viewed as norm makers – and especially do not want to be viewed as norm takers – as it may help them attain the status of global powers (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015; Prantl and Nakano, 2011). How states engage with norm diffusion, however, depends, for example, on factors such as compatibility of the global norm with pre-existing local norms (Brosig and Zahringer, 2015, p.352).

For Amitav Acharya, norm creation and diffusion is a two way process best defined as ‘norm circulation’, which combines Acharya’s earlier work on ‘localization’ and ‘subsidiarity’.

[G]lobal norms offered by transnational moral actors are contested and localized to fit the cognitive priors of local actors (localization), while this local feedback is repatriated back to the wider global context along with other locally constructed norms and help to modify and possibly defend and strengthen the global norm in question (subsidiarity) (2013, p.469).

Similarly, Jochen Prantl and Ryoko Nakano (2011) argue that norm diffusion is best described not as a top down linear process but as a ‘feedback loop’, whereby states attempt to alter the properties of a norm to fit their own strategic interests. The concepts of norm circulation and norm feedback highlight the dynamic nature of norm diffusion, and show that states can play important roles in shaping the trajectory of a ‘norm-in-formation’.

Brazilian and Chinese engagement with R2P fits within this theoretical framework. These emerging powers have simultaneously embraced and contested different parts of the norm according to pre-existing local norms, and have then attempted to modify R2P in order to accommodate this feedback. Their clearest attempts at shaping the norm have been in the form of Brazil’s Responsibility while Protecting (RwP) and China’s Responsible Protection concepts. Although both states embrace the central principles of R2P, they have taken issue with the way Pillar III was implemented by NATO in Libya (Kenkel and De Rosa, 2015; Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014). In China especially, there has been great difficulty in reconciling Pillar III intervention with local norms such as a longstanding and deeply rooted commitment to non-interference and the inviolability of sovereignty (Prantl and Nakano, 2011).

Although Brazil is also bound to the idea of non-interference, South American states’ experiences of military dictatorships have led to a strong normative commitment to human rights (Welsh et al, 2013). RwP, therefore, is aimed at improving the implementation of Pillar III action. It does not undermine the principles of R2P. Brazil’s RwP concept argues for the need to have more specific criteria for authorising military intervention, as existing provisions in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document are too vague (Tourihno et al, 2016). Similarly, China’s Responsible Protection builds on the ideas of RwP and the original International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ (2001), and outlines a stricter criteria for Pillar III military intervention. Responsible Protection stresses that any intervention must not negatively affect regional peace and stability, must not be interpreted to equate to regime change, and must not cause greater harm than already exists (Garwood-Gowers, 2016, p.103).

Brazil’s capacity to follow up RwP with concrete proposals for moving forward has been very limited (Welsh et al, 2013), and China’s Responsible Protection is not even official government policy (Garwood-Gowers, 2016). Despite these setbacks, Brazilian and Chinese engagement with R2P is of the utmost importance for the further development of R2P as a norm. These concepts have helped open up the debate on Pillar III intervention (Tourihno et al, 2016), and have highlighted the importance of getting non-Western emerging powers on board with R2P. RwP and Responsible Protection are forms of feedback which shape ‘norm circulation’ (Acharya, 2013), and hold great potential for progressing R2P in the aftermath of Libya. If states perceive themselves as ‘norm shapers’, they are much more likely to embrace and internalise said norm.

As Ramesh Thakur (2016) has argued, there should be a focus on improving the implementation of R2P to safeguard the norm from abuse and failure. This is exactly what RwP and Responsible Protection set out to do, by contesting Pillar III in an ‘applicatory’ manner which could help to clarify the boundaries of the norm, potentially bringing UNSC permanent 5 members Russia and China back on board (Evans, 2016). The willingness of emerging powers to engage with norm entrepreneurship is a positive sign, as the legitimacy of R2P is dependent upon acceptance by non-Western states (Garwood-Gowers, 2016). Long term consolidation of R2P requires a certain degree of consensus over Pillar III actions (Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014, p.270), and at present, the concepts offered by Brazil and China offer the most promising way forward.


This article has argued that R2P is best described not as a fully established norm, but as a ‘norm-in-formation’ (Negron-Gonzalez and Contarino, 2014). That is because R2P is a complex norm, combining multiple tenets that receive varying degrees of international support. Pillar I has become universally established and is enshrined in international law. Pillar III, on the other hand, is subjective and ambiguous, leaving it vulnerable to interpretation and contestation. Contestation, paradoxically, can aid with conceptual clarification, which will make the norm less vulnerable in the long term. In this way, post-Libya contestation may help to consolidate and further establish Pillar III, increasing the likelihood of state internalisation the R2P norm fully.

Furthermore, this article showed that through a process of feedback and circulation, Brazil and China have made valuable contributions to the continued normative formation of R2P. The RwP and RP concepts have raised important questions that must be addressed if R2P is to continue developing into its second decade. Assessing the point at which R2P can be considered an established norm poses difficulties by itself. Norms do not have a clear endpoint. They continue to evolve for as long as the norm is referred to and acted upon (Brosig and Zahringer, 2015, p.354). It is not within the scope of this essay to assess the theoretical point at which R2P may be considered fully established, but a step in that direction requires widespread consensus and internalisation of Pillar III. At present, this requires constructive engagement with non-Western concepts such as Brazil’s RwP and China’s Responsible Protection.


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