by Zac Johnson ’22

On October 27, Sophie Richardson was welcomed to Duke by American Grand Strategy and the Duke Human Rights Center. Sophie Richardson serves as the China Director at Human Rights Watch, which recently stated China is committing crimes against humanity for its detention of Uyghurs.  

from Robin Kirk’s FOCUS class, Human Rights: Back to the Future

She begins her talk by discussing the history of our understandings of the detention of the Uyghur people. Working with the Stanford Law School Human Rights Clinic, Richardson published in May of this year an assessment of human rights in China relating to Xinjiang, the border community where much of the detention is taking place. They based their arguments relating to crimes against humanity off international human rights law and binding treaties.  

Prior to their report, Richardson and the law clinic uncovered routine attempts to surveil and detain Uyghur people in Xinjiang. The Uyghur language is no longer taught in their schools, religious freedoms are being seriously curtailed and criminalized, and people have frequently reported missing family members and loved ones. Richardson points out the Chinese government’s commitment to surveilling the Uyghur people, recalling that while many other countries are pleased to see refugees leave, the Chinese government has actually hunted their Uyghur refugees down and sought their return.  

By 2019, Richardson says, it was clear some kind of mass detention was taking place in Xinjiang. After carefully interviewing people who had returned from detention or knew others who were detained, Human Rights Watch was able to identify the abandoning of minority cultures as a central tenet of the detention centers springing up along the Chinese border. She highlighted that people could be detained for anything as little as putting gas in a car that was not in their name or how often they pray. This information would be obtained by an advanced surveillance application that could recount all of this data on a person at a moment’s notice.  

Richardson then discussed the Chinese government’s attempts to justify their detention efforts. At first, the Chinese government denied the existence of any kind of detention centers. As more information came out of the area, the Chinese government began to argue the detention was a matter of national security from terrorism and by 2020, they suggested everyone would graduate from these “reeducation camps” and be released, which has not been corroborated.  

So, what do we do about this? Richardson outlines two frames of thinking: what should happen with bodies of law and what is politically realistic. Richardson and HRW’s strategy has been threefold: Build political support for UN backed investigation through the High Commissioner; investigate the role of Chinese and international firms doing business in the region; and lend assistance to the Uyghur diaspora community through language preservation programs and legal assistance.  

Entering question time, Richardson is asked whether she would qualify the detention of the Uyghurs as ethnic cleansing. She hesitates to say yes, not because the definition is inaccurate, but because the term has no legal meaning or weight like “crimes against humanity” does.  

In the end, this event brought us new human rights and legal understandings of the detention of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and encouraged me personally to think about the international implications of the Chinese government’s work. How did these strategies of minority control develop in China? With practices such as forced mixed marriages, forced sterilizations, and “reeducation,” it seems China may have taken these policies directly from the play book of American systemic racism. In any case, the detention of the Uyghurs is a clear violation of human rights and, as Human Rights Watch argues, even a crime against humanity.