Philippine Drug War: extrajudicial killings and police impunity

The Philippine drug war is an infamous anti-narcotics policy and crack down on suspected drug dealers and users under President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in June 2016. Notably, before being elected as President, Mr Duterte was the mayor of Davao City for over two decades – under his governance, the so-called “Davao Death Squad” killed hundreds of drug users, street children, and petty criminals; and he was known for endorsing their killings as an effective way of combating crime. After his election, Mr Duterte launched a campaign against “illegal drug personalities”, claiming that the Philippines had become a “narco-state” and promising that he would personally ensure that millions of drug users would be killed. The anti-drug campaign, dubbed as “Operation Double Barrel”, has targeted those suspected of using or distributing drugs, ostensibly for arrest. However, it has become evident that, in practice, the police and vigilante groups are carrying out systemic extrajudicial killings of suspects without proof of drug use, and often falsifying evidence to justify the unlawful killings.

In an investigation of 24 incidents that occurred between October 2016 and January 2017, which resulted in 32 deaths, Human Rights Watch found a discrepancy between official police reports and eyewitness accounts. While police reports asserted (and continue to assert) self-defence to justify the killings, eyewitness accounts overwhelmingly state that unarmed, defenceless suspects were killed in custody. The report also found evidence that the police routinely planted guns, spent ammunition, and drug packets next to the victims’ bodies to back up their claims.

Over the course of the campaign, the majority of victims were from impoverished urban areas, either unemployed or working menial jobs; and many were suspected drug users and not dealers. In addition, local human rights groups have identified an official modus operandi: an individual would first receive a visit from a neighbourhood official, informing them that they were on a watch list. These visits have been proved as being a method of confirming a target’s identity and location, rather than being official warnings – as shortly after the visit, armed assailants would barge into homes and shoot targets. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that the assailants failed to identify themselves or provide official warrants, usually wearing civilian clothes and shielding their faces with masks, caps, or helmets. In September 2016, for instance, 32-year-old Rogie Sebastian was handcuffed and shot in his home by three armed, marked men. A neighbour testified: “I heard the gunshots. There were also uniformed cops outside, they did not go inside the house. But the three killers in civilian clothes came and went on a motorcycle without any interference from the uniformed cops.”

The death toll over the course of the campaign is greatly debated, with contradicting claims made by police officials, the Philippines government, and human rights groups. To date, Human Rights Watch has estimated the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos, at least 2500 of which were attributed to the Philippines National Police. But in December 2018, the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights suggested that the number of drug-war killings might be as high as 27,000; while recent government data states that 5,600 suspected drug dealers and users were killed in operations since July 2016. Overall, the campaign appears to have intensified this year, with a recorded 50% increase in drug-war deaths during the lockdown from April to July.

In addition, the extrajudicial killings have been aided by the failure to arrest and consequently prosecute responsible police officers. A UN report, released in July 2020, states that the Philippines police regularly raid homes and private property without legitimate warrants, forcing suspects to make self-incriminating statements or risk lethal force. Yet since 2016, there has only been 1 conviction for the killing of a suspect during police operations, while the government maintains that all deaths have occurred legitimately. 

The recent UN report cites three key concerns regarding the government’s hardline policy towards suspected drug users – firstly, that harsh drug enforcement could lead to users “going underground”, away from critical health services. This could fuel the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C among users and certainly discourage people with addiction from seeking effective treatment. Secondly, the UN report states that extrajudicial killings committed on baseless grounds are accompanied by “near-impunity” for such violations, which would embolden police to behave as if they have permission to kill. Finally, the report raises concern over the government’s vilification of open criticism against the anti-drug policy, stating that attacks against critics of the anti-narcotics campaign are being “increasingly institutionalised and normalised in ways that will be very difficult to reverse.” For instance, the government has used their Covid-19 special powers laws to file criminal charges against people criticising them online; and between 2015-2019, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists, and trade unionists were killed in relation to their work. 

The government appears to be maintaining and perhaps even intensifying its hardline stance against narcotics – in June, President Duterte renewed his threat to kill drug dealers upon the seizure of 756kg of crystal methamphetamine, just a day after the UN report claimed near impunity on the part of the police in the drug war. Mr Duterte said that these drugs were proof that the Philippines was a transshipment point for illegal drugs and stated, in a recorded address: “If you destroy my country distributing 5.1 billion pesos worth of shabu…I will kill you.” 

There are growing calls among human rights groups and other parties for the UN Human Rights Council to order a further independent inquiry concerning human rights abuses in the Philippines.  “Like the UN, we are deeply concerned by the total impunity enjoyed by those who have perpetrated these crimes,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific regional director.


Philippines’ War on Drugs:

“License to Kill”:

Philippines’ war on drugs may have killed tens of thousands:

Philippines drug war: Do we know how many have died?:

“I will kill you”: Philippines’ Duterte renews drug war threat:

UN Report: Situation of human rights in the Philippines: 

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and the civilian impact

Since 27 September, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been embroiled in an armed conflict in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This conflict originated in the 1980s, as the USSR saw tensions arising in its constituent republics, and Nagorno-Karabakh (inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians) voted to become part of Armenia in 1991. This further aggravated the war which then continued until 1994 and saw about 30,000 deaths, the displacement of around one million people, and significant reports of ethnic cleansing carried out by both sides. Armenia argues that the province is a historic part of their homeland and cites the 1991 referendum to justify their claim; while Azerbaijan says that the province is internationally recognised as part of their territory. Since then, the dispute has remained unresolved, with Nagorno-Karabakh remaining part of Azerbaijan, but controlled by separatist ethnic Armenians. 

Tensions were high for several months prior to September, and it remains unclear which side started the conflict. Since the fighting began, an estimated 532 military members have died and officials say that roads, electricity, gas and communication networks have taken significant damage across the region.

The impact on civilians has been severe – Azerbaijani authorities reported that 42 of their non-militants were killed over 2 weeks, and Nagorno-Karabakh human rights ombudsman, Artak Beglaryan, said that at least 31 civilian deaths have occurred in the region, with hundreds more wounded and tens of thousands displaced. However, it’s difficult to independently verify these reports – while Armenia releases its military toll, Azerbaijan does not, and the overall number of casualties is likely much higher than reported. Both sides also deny ever targeting civilians or their infrastructures, while simultaneously accusing the other of doing so.

Efforts to broker a ceasefire have been difficult, despite many attempts from the international community to negotiate a peace deal. An agreement mediated by Russia was reached on October 10, but it was breached shortly after – with each side accusing the other of breaking the pact and targeting civilians. Another understanding was reached for a mutual withdrawal from midnight, 17 October – but early on the 18th, both sides again accused each other of violating it. The peace announcement came mere hours after Azerbaijan said that Armenia carried out a missile attack on Ganja, leaving 13 civilians dead, which Armenia has denied. Conversely, Armenia reported rocket attacks carried out by Azerbaijan, wounding at least 3 civilians. The Azeri Embassy in Washington, D.C. accused Armenia of committing “war crimes against civilians in order to distract from its battlefield losses and the illegal occupation of Azerbaijan,” but the Armenian government countered that they aimed for “legitimate military targets”, such as an air force base and a military industrial complex. 

In the international context, the key countries involved are Russia and Turkey. While Turkey supports Azerbaijan, Russia is allied with Armenia but has good relations with Azerbaijan, and has made repeated calls for a peace agreement. Both sides also insist that the other brought in foreign military forces on the ground – the Russian government complained to Turkey about militants allegedly being transferred from the Middle East to Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia (backed by French President Emmanuel Macron) accused Azerbaijan of recruiting foreign fighters from Syria. 

Furthermore, international consensus overwhelmingly calls for a ceasefire between the two sides, owing to the ‘human cost’ of civilian casualties as a result of the fighting. The EU recently denounced the attacks on Ganja and said that the original peace deal “must be fully respected without delay.” UN Secretary Antonio Guterres condemned the “indiscriminate attacks on populated areas” that have occurred, including in Stepanakert and other localities around the Nagorno-Karabakh zone of conflict, and urges both sides to resume negotiations.

As of today (October 28th), the fighting has intensified after the collapse of a third attempt at a ceasefire (brokered by the US), and both Azerbaijan and Armenia have reported civilian casualties in urban areas. Recent days have seen clashes on multiple fronts, with Azerbaijani forces capturing territory in the southern area, along its border with Iran. Although information about civilian victims is yet to be clarified, Azerbaijan claims that 21 civilians were killed and 70 injured in the city of Barda (outside the Nagorno-Karabakh region), a claim which Armenia denies. The conflict is ongoing and shows no signs of stopping as of yet.


What’s behind the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? 

Both sides obliged to ‘spare and protect civilians over Nagorno-Karabakh fighting’:

Armenia, Azerbaijan accuse each other of violating truce:

Russia seeks Nagorno-Karabakh truce return as deaths rise:

‘600 killed’ in fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh:

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: Why are they fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh:

Ceasefire fails to hold as Armenia, Azerbaijan accuse each other of targeting civilians: 

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad
Editor: Kelsey Greeff
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Human rights violations in Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis

Four years ago, a violent conflict began in the Southern regions of Cameroon, termed as the Anglophone Crisis, or the Ambazonia War. It began with protests by lawyers and teachers in Buea and Bamenda concerning the domination of the French language in these Anglophone regions. They saw this as an escalation of the already prominent marginalisation of Anglophones in Cameroon. The protests were an immensely popular movement; and on November 21, the so-called ‘coffin revolution’ occurred in Bamenda, demanding economic and political reforms. On October 1, 2017, military secessionist groups proclaimed the independence of a new nation, including these two regions, called Ambazonia. The conflict and political protests have further escalated following the Cameroon parliamentary election earlier this year, with both separatists and the government deploying additional and often excessive forces. Over the course of the conflict, an estimated 5000 people have been killed, and 680,000 displaced.

Numerous human rights violations have been carried out by both the Cameroon military forces and separatist fighters throughout the conflict. For instance, both factions allegedly targeted and carried out attacks on hospital and medical staff. On July 6, separatists killed a Doctors Without Borders health worker in the southwest region, while on June 30, security forces damaged a health facility in the northwest region. There have also been numerous accusations of killings, assaults and kidnappings of people with disabilities on both sides.

Furthermore, armed separatists have allegedly killed, assaulted and tortured several civilians from various groups, including students, teachers, clergy, women and children. On one occasion a group of separatists kidnapped around 40 people, beat and robbed them in Bafut, in the northwest region. Throughout the clash, separatists have used schools as their base, by enforcing boycotts of education, holding people hostage in them and deploying fighters and weapons from them. On February 16, separatists abducted a teacher, two guards and 170 students under the age of 18 from a boarding school in Kumbo in the northwest region, only releasing them  the following  day. 

Security forces have since cracked down on all instances of political opposition, whether evident or suspected. However, they have done so by killing civilians, torching villages, and using torture and incommunicado detentions. It thus comes as no surprise that this year has seen a widespread of reports of killings, property destruction and use of torture by authorities. One example of this being a brutal attack on the village of Meluf in the Northwest region where Cameroonian soldiers, gendarmes and soldiers belonging to BIR (Rapid Intervention Battalion) forcefully entered 80 homes and burned down 7. The government has also responded with violence towards those suspected of having ties to separatist groups. Reports have emerged of severe beatings and near-drownings committed against suspects at the State Defence Secretariat prison in the capital, Yaounde. 

President Paul Biya faces increasing backlash and unrest in response to the bloodshed in Anglophone regions since the beginning of the crisis. Civilians and political parties, spearheaded by Maurice  Kamto ( who leads the Cameroon Renaissance Movement party), have been publicly calling for president Biya’s ouster, citing his 38-year tenure as head of state and lack of sufficient response to the crisis. On September 22, hundreds of people gathered in protests in Douala and Yaounde, calling for electoral reform and an end to the conflict, shouting slogans like ‘Paul Biya must go.’ Authorities responded with similar violence, breaking up peaceful protests, and arresting opposition party leaders and supporters.Tear gas and water cannons were also used to break up the protests, while hundreds of people, including 8 journalists, were unnecessarily arrested and detained. Authorities have since vowed to prosecute those arrested in the protests, and pursue those fleeing, while Mr Kamto remains under house arrest. The Human Rights Defenders Network in Central Africa has described this clampdown as “serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Dishearteningly, the government appears to have failed to take accountability by preventing efforts to document human rights violations in the Anglophone regions.  In April, a Human Rights Watch researcher was denied access to the country with no reason being provided for this decision. Following this, an investigation was due to be carried out into the alleged burning of 70 homes by security forces in Mankon, Bamenda – the corresponding report was expected by May 24 but has still yet to be seen.

Although France and member states of the African Union have either sided with the government or taken a neutral stance, the overall international response has been a mounting increase of pressure on Cameroon to call a ceasefire. In February, the United States announced that it was reducing its security assistance to Cameroon after allegations of human rights violations committed by the Cameroonian military emerged. In March, the UK called on Cameroon to engage with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, after expressing concern about the situation and lack of accountability in the Anglophone regions. Germany similarly announced an end of its military cooperation with Cameroon in July. Additionally, peace talks have taken place between the government and jailed leaders of the Ambazonia Interim Government (IG) in an attempt to find some common ground and progress towards a solution, however, despite this, the violence continues. Since January, at least 285 civilians have been killed in the northwest and southwest regions, while tens of thousands of people found themselves displaced over the past two months. The UN High Commissioner has expressed concerns over the allegations of human rights violations and the Cameroonian government’s efforts to prevent their coverage. Their most recent response has been to urge the government to carry out transparent investigations, going forward.


Human Rights Watch World Report 2020 (Cameroon):

Cameroon’s escalating Anglophone crisis shows little sign of abating:

Civilians Killed in Anglophone Regions:

Protestors call for end to bloodshed from Anglophone crisis:

Cameroon’s “president for life” is facing protests as the Anglophone crisis rumbles on:

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Everything You Don’t Know About U.S. Drone Strikes

Recently, Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general was killed in a U.S. drone attack which has re-sparked debates on the U.S. justifications for violence, how ‘ethical’ drone warfare really is, and the ideology of military humanism. Today, drone warfare has become a prominent tactic within militarist strategies. On the surface, it seems to target specific dangerous insurgents whilst sparing the lives of innocent civilians and increasing the likelihood of U.S. soldiers coming home. In reality, some reports point towards the horrific realization that drone strikes inevitably kill substantial numbers of civilians whilst creating a culture of terror. Ultimately, drone warfare has blurred the lines between legality and illegality, civilian and combat, war and peace. 

Drones are used in various ways, the ultimate goal being, the elimination of threatening individuals and situations. In essence, drone technology conducts two different types of strikes: ‘personality strikes’ and ‘signature strikes’. ‘Personality strikes’ target specific individuals who have been tracked and whose names appear on a blacklist. The drones can circle in the air for up to 40 hours whilst relaying video footage and details of cell phone calls to centres in the Middle East, Europe or America. If enough ‘evidence’ is accumulated the drone can issue strikes if there are no, or few civilians nearby. 

The evidence accumulated to justify an attack varies immensely depending on the situation. For example, in the past drone operators have admitted that there have been cases where the only evidence they have to link a person on the ground to a name on their list is the fact that the person is in possession of the identified target’s mobile phone. Evidence is also sourced from local informants who will reveal to the U.S. potentially threatening people or the location of the target’s house. Yet, such evidence is certainly unreliable because these local informants may be tempted by large sums of money to point fingers at innocent people in order to settle a feud. Pakistani Anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed states that tribesmen ‘seemed to be playing their own devious games with the drones’. Furthermore, it is troubling to think that the evidence used by the U.S. to condone a strike could be misinformation.

‘Signature strikes,’ involve people who are targeted based on them exhibiting a particular appearance or behaviour in accordance with what is labelled as ‘threatening’. Some behaviour profiling is clear-cut such as firing on U.S. troops, however, there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to ‘signature strikes.’ For example, behaviour such as digging may constitute enough evidence for a strike but this does not necessarily mean the target is burying an Improvised Exploding Device (IED). One tragic case occurred in 2011 when a drone operator attacked a convoy of families in Afghanistan because they prayed at dawn. This religiosity gave the mistaken impression that they were Taliban. The attack killed over a dozen children. 

In some instances, the killing of innocent civilians is justified by U.S. military lawyers through granting that the civilians are ‘proportionate’ to the risk of the target. In other words, they have the power to decide if the killing of civilians is acceptable and in accordance with the laws of war given the perceived risk of the target. Software such as Bugsplat calculates the probable repercussions in relation to the selected placement of the missile. According to an investigation team from Der Spiegal, drone operators have, in the past, been pushed by their superiors to stretch the justifications for a strike. For instance, the investigation discovered that only women, children and the elderly were treated as civilians. By only considering women, children, and the elderly as civilians it enables the U.S. to conduct more drone strikes since ‘officially’ there is ‘less’ risk of killing innocent non-combatants. 

Drone warfare has been portrayed by U.S. officials as the ‘clean, surgical excision of insurgents who were terrorizing the local population’. This is known as ‘drone essentialism,’ the false claim that drones minimize suffering. The U.S. National Security and leaders defend U.S. drone warfare by claiming it shows a kinder and gentler discourse of fighting and that it is more in line with international law than alternative weaponry and tactics such as torture. The CIA director, John Brennan argued that ‘it is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft.’ Such ideas allow for ‘ethical slipping’ where drone operators relax their operational practises. This process enables drones to become weapons of terror and be used to discriminate against innocent victims. It seems that the United States can use drone strikes to campaign terror in a foreign territory causing significant civilian casualties, whilst also continuing the American principle of acting with restraint and humanitarian concern. Such a statement is a good example of ‘Military humanism,’ a concept where war is represented as an unfortunate obligation which has been begrudgingly thrust upon a nation through the dysfunctional way that the world works; conclusively, the United States is forced to take salvationist responsibility for the greater good of society. 

Currently, according to the Bureau of Investigative journalism between 910-2,181 civilians have been killed by drone strikes. However, the realities of drone strikes are difficult to fully comprehend since ‘the United States has to date failed to reveal its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft in classified operations.’ The U.S. has repeatedly dismissed the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s inquisition into the concerning effects that drone warfare has on the civilians on the ground. In particular, disagreeing with the estimate that at least 400 civilians have died in Pakistan drone strikes. Brennan has said that the claims of high civilian casualties amount to ‘disinformation’. He also stated that in 2010 ‘there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency and precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.’ However, as law professor Christiane Wilke points out, it is difficult to identify who is considered to be a civilian because the status of a civilian or non-civilian is blurred, and drone operators may not confidently know how many people lie inside a collapsed building. 

Human Rights organisation, Reprieve, tracked official U.S. announcements of successful kills and found that there were 41 instances claiming that the same insurgent leader had been killed in many different drone strikes. This alone highlights the danger drone strikes pose due to drone operators wrongly believing that someone on the ground is a match with someone on their ‘kill list’. Disappointingly, British Lawyer Ben Emmerson notes that operations that kill civilians are not necessarily illegal under international law, but national states do have a duty of transparency where there are credible allegations of non-combatants being harmed. 

The persistent buzzing of the drones instils profound psychological and effects within targeted societies. Such effects are especially visible within children’s behaviour. For example, Michael Kugelam reports, ‘I have heard Pakistanis speak about children in the tribal areas who become hysterical when they hear the characteristic buzz of a drone.’ Waziristan, which is located in the ‘tribal area’ of Pakistan, has probably endured the most drone strikes per square mile than any other place on earth. This has inevitably created a culture of terror. The terror in part alludes from the confusion of not knowing what type of behaviour will get them killed. For example, a doctor might have no way of knowing that the patient he is treating is on the U.S. target list. Strict rules of hospitality within the Pashtun honour code eliminates people’s choice to refuse potential targets into their guesthouses because of the peer pressure, cowardice and loss of face that this would bring. Therefore, innocent people are being framed as threatening due to a lack of cultural understanding. Drone strikes are inevitably forcing a sense of powerlessness, anticipatory anxiety and dread upon targeted regions. 

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of drone strikes is what is known as the ‘Double tap strikes’ which are favoured more by the CIA than military commanders. Double tap strikes are when drone operators launch further attacks against those who help the targets of the original attack. These are also used against those who attend the funerals of the original target. However, culturally the Pashtunwali honour code in Waziristan may compel men to attend funerals of their enemies as well as their friends. Such forms of attacks have been condemned by human rights lawyers as war crimes. UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heynes states that those pulling survivors out of the rubble are just as likely to be Good Samaritans as they are insurgents. To further this point Clive Stafford, the lawyer in charge of the charity Reprieve, argues that double tap strikes ‘are like attacking the Red Cross on the battlefield.’ 

Many view drone warfare as taking the moral high ground, believing that this technology is unprecedented in its ability to target insurgents whilst sparing the lives of innocent civilians. However, in the words of General David Deptula, ‘the real advantage of unmanned aerial systems is that they allow you to project power without projecting vulnerability.’ Understandably, the United States turned to drones because they offered a way to kill the enemy without risking the lives of American soldiers. Yet, drone technologies should not be seen as a solution to warfare. It is evident that there is too large a disconnect between drone operators and the real consequences occurring on the ground. This creates a double standard that allows the U.S. to preach human rights and morality whilst simultaneously killing innocent children. Furthermore, in order to keep within the proposed concept of military humanism, this dichotomy needs to be clarified and the suffering of others made more visible by holding the U.S. accountable for their actions and lack of transparency.


Hugh Gusterson, Drone Warfare in Waziristan and the New Military Humanism, 19 Feb 2019, Current Anthropology, Vol. 60, 19. 

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Bella Eperon

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

Human Rights Violation in China’s Hidden Camps

In recent months China’s ruling Communist party claims to have established ‘re-education’ camps which provide “free job training” for Chinese citizens. These camps have emerged predominantly in the Xinjiang region to offer an escape from poverty and provide unfortunate individuals with new opportunities. However, in light of leaked documents, it has become evident that these ‘re-education’ camps are in reality not simply for the average Chinese citizen. Rather, this has become a targeted system of forced labor for a sought out minority group. The Chinese Communist party seem to be targeting their Muslim population, in particular the Uighurs and Kazakhs. 

There has been speculation that inside these camps numerous human rights violations have occurred such as mass rape, forced abortions and sterilisations, organ harvesting, and experimental medical procedures as well as torture and undocumented cases of death. Due to media censorship in the People’s Republic of China, much of the evidence on these violations are scarce. The internet is effectively banned from Xinjiang and all foreign journalists are closely monitored, making it impossible to conduct interviews or gather concrete evidence. Chinese officials have dismissed any documents as fake news and when the UN panel questioned a senior Chinese official he denied allegations of forced labour and claimed that the camps were ‘vocational schools for criminals’. 

Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming surplus of personal accounts, documentation, and inconsistencies. The Washington-based East Turkistan National Awakening Movement released information that identified 465 camps in Xinjiang, including ‘182 suspected Concentration Camps, 209 suspected prisons, and 74 suspected Bingtuan labor camps’. Images of these were captured using Google Earth Satellite imagery.

The varied branding of each of these camps allows for immense ambiguity that further muddles the global disquisition on this issue. Some appear to be voluntary training camps, prison camps, mass detention camps, and others as ‘re-education’ camps. Often such compounds act as feeder-camps that funnel individuals into forced labour factories. Satellite images show the close proximity of the factories to the camps suggesting an agenda to quickly transfer inmates to the factories upon “release”.  

Leaked documents describe the camps as training centres with detailed plans of uprooting villages, restricting personal freedoms, and pressuring or forcing inmates to stay in their jobs. Other documents clearly state that the camps should run like high-security prisons including military-style training, strict discipline, and punishment. The camps are often located amongst desert dunes surrounded by high walls and some have barbed wire and security cameras. One statement, in particular, instructs that ‘the students should have a fixed bed position, fixed queue position, fixed classroom seat, and fixed station during skills work, and it is strictly forbidden for this to be changed.’ This exemplifies the extreme restrictions placed upon the Uighur community and highlights the overbearing limitations imposed upon their everyday activities. 

Furthermore, sexual violence within this controversy has largely gone unnoticed and hasn’t been thoroughly discussed in the media as of yet. There have been reports and personal accounts of women and girls being raped by guards in front of the masses within some of these camps. 

Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh, was forced to work in one of the women’s camps in Xinjiang. She informed Israeli newspaper Haaretz that in the evenings, the guards would choose ‘pretty’ inmates, put bags over their heads and then suspiciously return the females to their rooms in the morning. She also claims to have witnessed cases of gang rape, she describes one particular occurrence including other inmates being forced to watch a man rape a woman. Shamseden states talk amongst the Muslim women alludes to rape as a common occurrence inside the camps as well as outside the camp walls, in which Uighur women are forced into situations where issues of sexual harassment and abuse are likely, such as through the the ‘Pair-up and Become Family Scheme,’ which forced marriages upon women. This has allowed for many undocumented cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence to continue.  

The outreach coordinator for the U.S. based Uighurs Human Rights Project believes that the Chinese government is targeting these women because “if you want to eradicate a people, you must destroy its women.” He explains that this would ensure the destruction of “Uighur culture and identity”. 

Some critics speculate that this overall brutalization stems from a fear that the Uighur Muslims are a threat to China’s security. Events such as 9/11 and the idea of the ‘War on Terror’ are being used to justify this victimization. The camps have been described as a method of controlling and indoctrinating the Muslim population, attempting to turn Muslims into disciplined and obedient Chinese citizens. From the Chinese Communist party’s view, the camps are a solution to the rise of religious extremism and ethnic violence. It is a strategy of social re-engineering that results in loyal non-denominational Chinese nationals. 

Dishearteningly, China’s economic power means that other governments are less willing to help the Uighurs at this time. Presently, the United Nations are divided in their response with 54 countries supporting China’s stance. Surprisingly, 14 of these supporting countries are active members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, said these measures, referring to the camps, have protected the local people and emphasised that there had not been a single terrorist attack in Xinjiang in the past three years. This again reinforces the idea that anti-terrorism is being used as a justification for these human rights violations. However, in July 2019, 22 western nations including the UK. Canada, New Zealand and Australia, all signed a letter to the UN calling on China to stop these camps. In October 2019, although the US did not sign the letter, they placed visa restrictions on Chinese officials ‘believed to be responsible for, or complicit in’ the detention of Uighur Muslims. Although, actions have been initiated there has not been enough support to ensure the termination of these horrific camps.

History shows that some of the greatest atrocities and human rights violations have been justified by minorities being portrayed as subhuman, through dehumanization, frequently being branding as “viruses” “plagues” or “defects” of their nations. The Chinese government’s leaked documents state that freedom is only possible when this ‘virus’, alluding to Muslim religion and culture, is eradicated.  Ben Emmerson QC, a leading human rights lawyer and an adviser to the World Uighur Congress, argues that the camps are changing people’s identity.”It’s a total transformation that is designed specifically to wipe the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang as a separate cultural group off the face of the Earth.”


Data leak details China’s ‘brainwashing system’:

China’s Detention Camps for Muslims Turn to Forced Labor:

Inside China’s Push to Turn Muslim Minorities Into an Army of Workers:

CONCENTRATION CAMPS IN XINJIANG, CHINA — shit you should care about:

China’s attacks on Uighur women are crimes against humanity:

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content phiolosphy.*

Author: Bella Eperon

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik