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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Enter China’s Vocational Training Camps: A Facade for Gross Human Rights Violations

Manasa Ram Raj writes about China’s “Vocational Training Camps” for the ethnic Uyghur community in Xinjiang, and examines it through the lens of the law. 

In recent years, reports of violence within the Chinese “Vocational Training Camps” have emerged. China has corralled over one million Muslims, belonging to the ethnic Uyghur community across different camps in Xinjiang. 

Through these camps, China has set out on a mission to send those who have committed minor offenses into these training internment camps as an alternative to judicial prosecution, where they will be subject to “re-education.” In reality, these camps function like prisons[1], with a high degree of human rights violations carried out systematically by the State. 

The Uyghurs and other religious minorities are being forced to give up their personal autonomy, faith, and religion through large scale “re-education” and brainwashing. In addition to separating families and children, State-sanctioned gender-based offenses like rape, forced abortion, and sexual violence are being carried out. A satellite image estimates that about 39 camps are functional to date but the exact numbers are still unknown. Established under General Secretary Xi Jinping’s administration, these camps are neither legal in their existence, nor in its practice[2].

The Uyghurs: A Brief History

The disintegration of the Soviet Union led to the formation of new states around China’s border. Consequently, China’s concern and fear over losing its power saw large scale campaigns subjecting indigenous people to arbitrary arrests and detentions that ensured China regained its power over these neighboring lands and the indigenous people living there. One such is the land of Uyghuristan, now known as Xinjiang. For China, this piece of land holds great importance. Geographically and strategically, it sits en route the Persian Gulf, through which China seeks to lead Eurasia’s economic developments. 

Owing to these deliberated dispositions, China has colonized the region with local Chinese settlers from the 1950s, making Uyghurs a minority in their own homeland[3]. This also paved the way for the creation of the “extremist eradication policies” which essentially is China’s excuse to wipe out a section of its minority population in the name of “anti-terrorism” initiatives. 

The Vocational Training Camps: A Legal Examination

After denying the existence of such camps, China acknowledges that these internment camps merely function as vocational or re-education camps with the purpose to impart skills. In reality, the survivors of the camp narrate[4] a ghastly picture of what actually happens within. To the extent, the violence against Uyghurs has steadily caused the dwindling of its population. From 82 percent in the 1950s, the population fell to less than half by 2010s.[5] 

China has signed the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)[6] that guarantees the right to self-determination and the right to freely determine the social and cultural development of all individuals. While China is yet to ratify ICCPR, as a signatory, a Member State is required to comply with obligations laid thereunder and, in addition, must refrain from undertaking any action that overrides the objectives of the Covenant as a whole. However, facts point out that men and women are denied their right to life, right to expression and most importantly, right to religion[7]. In effect, these systematic human rights violations within the “vocational camps” reflect China’s commitment to ratify the Covenant. ICCPR was one of the first international instruments to highlight the rights of the minorities under Article 27. In an attempt to pressure China into taking some form of action, the international community and UN experts are calling on China to remove its name as a signatory failing any efforts to uphold the values of ICCPR.[8]

The human rights violations carried out in these camps is one of a large scale and are not just stand-alone incidents. Every prisoner is at potential risk of sexual or physical abuse within these camps[9]. Effectively, these gruesome and dehumanizing policies also stand in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)[10]. Article I of CAT explains the meaning of torture as an act causing severe mental/physical pain, obtaining forced confessions, intimidation, and discrimination with the intention of causing such pain. To further explain the application of CAT, Article II also illustrates that under no circumstance, be it war, peace, or threat of internal instability, torture can be justified. In light of this Convention, a survivor narrates his experience of how the prisoners are brainwashed by the Chinese officials who forced them to study communist propaganda every day. 

According to his testimony, prisoners who refused to adhere to the orders of the officials or were even late for “classes” were cuffed at their hands and ankles for twelve hours straight. He also recounts that prisoners are coerced into giving confessions against themselves or their people; where waterboarding was a common technique used by the Chinese officials. Prisoners who disobeyed further were strapped to a metal contraption known as “tiger chair”.[11] These actions stand in direct contradiction to Article I and II of the Convention. It is noteworthy to mention that China has ratified CAT which requires China to prevent any forms of torture and provide remedies for those tortured.  However, until date, China continues to ignore CAT and its responsibilities as a Member State to uphold the rights laid down under. 

As China continues to slowly destroy the Uyghurs population without realizing its obligations and responsibility as per ICCPR or CAT, there is enough evidence to suggest the Uhygurs are victims of genocide (or what can be noted as systematic events leading to a genocide) as a result of China’s extremist policies. Effectively, the destruction of a particular section of its population draws focus on the application of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide[12] (herein referred to as the “Genocide Convention”). By virtue of Article I, “the Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in times of peace or in times of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” China ratified this Convention on July 20, 1949, officially making them a Contracting Party as per the provision. 

To clarify the application of the Genocide Convention, the Outreach Programme on the Rwanda Genocide and the United Nations state[13] that an act of genocide ought to be prevented by the State in which the crime is being committed, regardless of it being wartime or peacetime. The situation in China is definitely not one of armed conflict, hence, the Genocide Convention draws its application during times of peace and to the effect of disturbance of international peace. To further elaborate, by the end of World War II, the UN General Assembly Resolution 96(1), December 946, explains[14] that genocide is a crime under international law and invites the Member States to put in place necessary national legislation to prevent and punish any acts of genocide. Accordingly, genocide is against the spirit of the UN Charter and by punishing those responsible for the act of genocide, international peace can be re-established; wherein gross human rights violations in the name of genocide would fit within the understanding and meaning of ‘threat to international peace’.[15] Categorically, the actions of the Chinese officials are well thought out and a process that has evolved over time, so as to fit the scheme of genocide. 

Drone footage[16] indicates that the minority Uyghurs are forcibly gathered in masses, transferred to these vocational camps by trains. However, these prisoners have their hands bound behind their backs and eyes covered. Testimonies by survivors suggest that the prisoners in the camp are being forced to abandon their language, culture, and give up their religion. To the extent, Muslims are forced to speak only in Mandarin, sing the praises of the Community Party every day and are forcibly also made to eat pork[17]. Furthermore, China is attacking the Uyghur women through systemic rape and sexual violence. Weaponizing sexual violence to suppress women is not uncommon. Perpetrators of genocide design[18] its implementation based on gender. By attacking[19] the Uyghurs women, China is diluting the Muslim population through forced abortions and forced separation of children from their parents. While such acts lead to genocide as per Article II, Section C, that states “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”; crimes like rape, forced abortion, and sexual violence can also be seen as crimes against humanity. Article 7[20] of the Rome Statute defines crimes against humanity as various acts of violence directed against a civilian population that includes rape, sexual violence, illegal detentions, forcible transfer of population and other such acts that can injure mental and physical wellbeing of a population. 

To further substantiate the charge of genocide, women survivours report large scale gender and sex crimes being carried out systemically by the State against any man or woman, below the age of 35. This violates Article II, Section B, of the Genocide Convention that reiterates “causing serious bodily or mental harm to the members of the group” as an act in lieu of genocide. One survivor who fled to Turkey reported[21] to the Washington Post that she was raped multiple times by the Chinese officials who then brutally aborted her pregnancies without any medication. Another survivor who fled to Kazakhstan after spending years in the camp recalled[22] that she was already pregnant when she arrived at the camp, and the officials cut her open and removed the fetus out, without administering anesthetic or giving regard to other medical needs. The survivours also talked about how the Chinese officials place a bag on heads of whomever they want, pull them out, and rape them all night. In addition to this, women were forced to rub grounded chilly paste on their genitals and were also compelled with intrauterine devices to avoid pregnancy.[23] These practices constructively also stand in breach of Article II, Section D, of the Genodice Convention, which also identifies the act of “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” as genocide. 

In conclusion, such egregious acts of sexual violence are often used as a tool of suppression during the genocide, to permanently harm the physical and mental wellbeing[24], demoralizing the prisoner’s will to live and ability to procreate, and thereby imposing upon the group to come to an end.[25] The actions of China systematically breach the Genocide Convention under multiple grounds. As a Contracting Party, China is required to implement national legislation to effectively curb, prevent and punish any acts of genocide, or any acts leading to genocide. In this case, since this accounts to large scale State-backed crimes, it requires the intervention of the International Criminal Court by virtue of Article IX[26] of the Genodice Convention to charge China’s actions as amounting to the genocide of the Uyghurs and the UN Security Council by virtue of Article 39[27] of the UN Charter to maintain and restore international peace.


  1. Secret Chinese Documents Reveal Inner Workings of Muslim Detention Camps. NBC News. November 2019. 

  2. Tracking China’s Muslim Gulag. Reuters. 

  3. Concepcion, Natasha Parassram. Human Rights Violations Against Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of Western China. Human Rights Brief 8, no. 1 (2000): 19-21.

  4. Muslim inmates in China detention camps forced to eat pork, drink alcohol and physically tortured as some commit suicide. Washington Post. May 2018.

  5. Fallon, J. E. China’s Crime Against Uyghurs is a Form of Genocide. Fourth World Journal. Vol 28 Issue 1. (2019): P 76-88. 

  6. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

  7. China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers. The Goal: ‘Transformation’. The New York Times. September 2018.

  8. China Must Stop Making a Mockery of the Rights Treaties it Signs. Washington Post.

  9. China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Council on Foreign Relations. November 2019. 

  10. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

  11. Brainwashing, Police Guards and Coercive Internment: Evidence from Chinese Government Documents about the Nature and Extent of Xinjiang’s “Vocational Training Internment Camps”. Journal of Political Risk. 7 July 2019. 

  12. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

  13. The Outreach Programme on the Rwanda Genocide and the United Nation.

  14. UN General Assembly Resolution 96(1), December 1946.

  15. Gaeta, P. (Ed.). (2009). The UN Genocide Convention: A Commentary. Oxford Commentaries on Interna.

  16. Chinese Muslims reveal rapes, abortions and forced sterilizations’ using chili paste’ at ‘concentration camps’ as shocking footage emerges of hundreds of shackled and blindfolded prisoners – Daily Mail UK. October 2019.

  17. Papers Reveal Brainwashing, Not Job Training, At China’s Camps. Bangkok Post. November 2019.

  18. Beyond Killing: Gender, Genocide, & Obligations Under International Law. Global Justice Centre. 2018. 

  19. China’s Attacks on Uyghurs Women are Crimes Against Humanity. Washington Post. 

  20. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

  21. Inside China’s ‘re-education camps’ where women are raped and sterilized. Metro UK.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Eradicating Ideological Viruses. Human Rights Watch.

  25. Beyond Killing (pt. 18)

  26. Article IX, Genocide Convention. 

  27. Article 39, UN Charter. 

Further Reading

  1. Ethnic cleansing of Uyghur identity by China. European Foundation for South Asian Studies. August 2018. 

  2. Stein, Justin J. Taking the deliberative turn in China: International law, minority rights, and the case of Xinjiang. Journal of Public and International Affairs – Princeton – 14 (2003): 144-163.

  3. China | UN experts call for the repeal of ‘de-extremification’ regulations in Xinjiang. International Service for Human Rights. 13 November 2018. 

  4. Clarke, M. (2015). China and the Uyghurs: the “Palestinization” of Xinjiang. Middle East Policy, 22(3), 127-146.

  5. Guidance Note, When to Refer to a Situation as Genocide, United Nations on Genocide Prevention and Responsibilities to Protect. 

  6. Sitkin, R. A., Lee, B. X., & Lee, G. (2019). To destroy a people: Sexual Violence as a Form of Genocide in the Conflicts of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Chile. Aggression and Violent Behavior.


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