Representatives from Boston University’s International Human Rights Clinic Seek to Hold China Accountable for Ongoing Human Rights Violations with their Participation in the Recent Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Review

BU Intl Human Rights
7 min readMar 11, 2023

Background to the 73rd Session of the CESCR Review of China

Last week from February 13th until February 16th representatives from Boston University’s International Human Rights Clinic (the Clinic) headed to Geneva to participate in the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights’ (CESCR) review of China. Students from the Clinic worked with their supervising attorney, Professor Susan Akram, and partner organization, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), to produce a joint submission detailing China’s many violations of the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The joint submission to the Committee is published here. The submission alleges that China has and continues to violate the human rights of Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim peoples in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (the Uyghur Region).

China’s Systemic Violations of the Rights of Uyghur and Other Turkic and Muslim People

The Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim people living in the Uyghur Region are faced with discriminatory laws that criminalize the practice of their religion and culture. Everything from wearing a veil, growing a beard, and having multiple children to learning native languages and contacting family members abroad could result in arbitrary detention in “vocational re-education” centers. Further, Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim people are forced to participate in labor programs. The Chinese government claims these programs are alleviating poverty, but those interned as a result of the forced labor programs face detrimental consequences. Families are separated, children are sent to state-run boarding schools, and Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim people in both the forced labor programs as well as the re-education centers face torture and other abuses at the hands of state officials. Even Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim people that are not part of the 1 to 3 million detained, face constant surveillance through technology, increased police presence, and even monitoring through the “Becoming Family” program where Chinese officials are placed in the homes of Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim people. The submission details the full extent of these abuses, but for an overview, the submission asserts that “China’s policies of arbitrary detention and forced labor, coercive mass birth control, discriminatory mass surveillance and invasion of privacy target the Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim peoples in violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”) and China’s domestic law.”

Located just outside of Palais Wilson along Lac Geneve, WUC held a demonstration highlighting the many Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim victims of arbitrary detention in China. The demonstration was so successful that those attending the CESCR meeting inside Palais Wilson and those watching online could hear the chanting of the protesters.

The Role of the BU International Human Rights Clinic

Students began working on the submission early in the fall semester and met several times with representatives from the WUC, an organization “that represents the collective interest of the Uyghur people both in East Turkistan and abroad”. Together, the team did extensive research to produce clear and reliable evidence of the ongoing human rights violations. The students spent time learning to find best sources, often using data and documents produced by the Chinese government itself. However, the work did not end with the submission, and at the beginning of the spring semester, the students began preparing for their trip to Geneva. The CESCR meets regularly to review conduct of member states and ensure they are upholding their obligations to the ICESCR. China signed the ICESCR on October 27, 1997 and ratified it on March 27, 2001. The state party faced reviews in 2005, 2014, and 2021, however many of the violations surfaced in the 2021 review remain a concern today and became subject to review once again during the 2023 session. In preparation for the review, WUC and the Clinic drafted questions and recommendations for the Committee members.

Civil Society participation in UN Convention reviews is a vital and historic component of the review process. The research and information provided by civil society groups to the Committee ahead of the review ensure the Committee members have up to date, reliable data upon which to frame the review. Civil societies also have the chance to meet with the Committee members informally before the session begins. WUC and the Clinic were able to attend this meeting along with several other dedicated civil society groups seeking to help educate the Committee members on serious human rights concerns. There was also a strong GONGO presence at this meeting. GONGOs are government-organized non-governmental organizations. The concept is certainly an oxymoron, and unsurprisingly the GONGOs spent most of their allotted time praising China’s commitment to economic, social, and cultural rights. However, the participation of the GONGOs did not succeed in taking away from the important and reliable information shared by the legitimate NGOs who worked together to create an organized, cohesive presentation of facts to ensure the Committee members would be properly prepared to review China.

Members from WUC and the BU International Human Rights Clinic are pictured with members from other Uyghur and Tibetan NGOs who worked hard on submissions to aid the Committee members in their review. Photo taken on the steps of Palais Wilson in Geneva where the CESCR review took place.

Attending the Session

There were two days of the session that focused exclusively on China. WUC and the Clinic were able to attend both despite being forewarned that there may not be room available as China sent a delegation of around 30 people — much larger than is typical. In observing the session, WUC and the Clinic witnessed the impact of their submission firsthand. Committee members respectfully and resolutely questioned the Chinese delegation about the treatment of the Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim people. The Committee members were clearly informed and relied on information submitted by WUC and the Clinic as well as other civil society members. Committee Member Saran asked “how does China protect cultural rights while researchers documented the destruction of 10,000 Uyghur mosques?” and said “I wanted to know if there is any university or centers for higher learning which impart education in the Uyghur language?”. Committee Member Windfuhr asked “why the vocational training centers are not open for a visit” and “why are the factories not open for audits?”. Committee Member Hennebel also asked how the government protects cultural rights whilst destroying mosques and Uyghur cemeteries. He made sure the delegation knew that “this [review] should not be an exercise of patting ourselves on the back for progress, but identifying challenges, obstacles, to find solutions together.” Committee Member Caunhye asked a great follow up question on the day’s previous session when he said “It was mentioned yesterday that people are sent to [camps] because of ‘minor offenses’, what do they consist of?”. China’s answers were less than satisfactory claiming “all ethnic groups in China can equally enjoy all human rights” and ignoring their own data. Luckily the civil society presence at the session ensured the questions and answers are preserved and fact checked by spending time live tweeting fact-checked responses to China’s claims. These threads can be found here: https://bit.ly/3EYvOje; https://bit.ly/3ZmYwCx; https://bit.ly/3EZRLOS; and https://bit.ly/3YlSS1Z.

The review had an organized schedule where the rights covered by the ICESCR were allocated into blocks. Following opening remarks, each block began with Committee member questions, followed by responses from the Chinese delegation. Committee members would then be given the opportunity to ask follow-up questions based on the responses from the Chinese delegation. The follow-up questions offered the Committee members the chance to re-ask questions that were not answered and to express disapproval or disappointment with answers that did not address the question or did not indicate to the Committee members that the ICESCR obligations are being upheld in China. The valuable dialogue continued for three hours each day. While this may seem to be a long period of time, it went quickly and time constraints hindered the Committee’s ability to effectively and thoroughly review all aspects of China’s ICESCR obligations. Nonetheless, the Committee is able to request more information from China following the session and ahead of the release of their concluding observations. These concluding observations were published for public viewing and can be read here: https://bit.ly/3Jcl02g.

Next Steps

In addition to the recommendations found presented in publication of the Committee’s observations, this review made clear that the public awareness of China’s human rights violations committed against the Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim people is growing. The available research is reliable and plentiful, and the questions asked by the Committee members speak to this. Therefore, the efforts to stop China’s illegal treatment of the Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim people does not and cannot end with the CESCR review. The progress made at the CESCR review must be carried forward into the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’s review of China in May, the Universal Periodic Review that will occur this summer, through the efforts of special rapporteurs, as well as outside the UN system through international relations between countries, multinational corporations, and the constant work by human rights activists. Students from the Clinic feel very fortunate to have been able to participate in such a valuable experience and know they will continue to use the skills they’ve gained during this process. They hope Boston University will continue to raise awareness and provide valuable legal assistance to this and other vitally important human rights efforts.

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BU Intl Human Rights

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.