In late June, findings from an investigation confirmed China’s compulsory sterilization of Uyghur women native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwest China. Dr. Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in Chinese studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, conducted research that indicates a significant decline in the birth rate of the Uyghur minority in contrast to the rising birth rate of the Han population, the largest ethnic group in China. The National People’s Congress abolished the one child policy in 2016 and allows a family to have two children; however, this relaxation of reproductive restrictions do not seem to apply to ethnic minorities.
In 2014, China’s government established indoctrination camps which are officially called Vocational Education and Training Centers to re-educate the Uyghur community. The primary intention of these camps is to eradicate the political and religious ideals of the Uyghur people and to eliminate any possibility of separatist movements within the country. Compulsory sterilization is performed within these camps to curb the Uyghur population.
Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) defines discrimination against women “as any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women.” The forced obstruction of the reproductive autonomy of minority women is a discriminatory act. This forced obstruction also violates one’s right to life and liberty under Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the right to health under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which embodies reproductive autonomy.
Moreover, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has classified coerced sterilization as a form of torture. In addition, article 1 of the Convention Against Torture (CAT) defines torture as
“any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
Thus, forced sterilization contravenes the fundamental principles enshrined in this treaty and because China is a signatory, China has an international obligation to respect the provisions in good faith.
Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide describes genocide as “the mental element of intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group and the physical element of imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” It is clear that the act of sterilization of Uyghur women fulfills genocidal intent under this treaty.
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the forced insertion of intra-uterine devices is the lack of informed consent. Several international cases discuss the issue of consent. In Government of the Republic of Namibia v. LM and Others, three HIV positive women were rendered sterile by medical professionals because of a state-run hospital. The Supreme Court of Namibia held that the practice of sterilization “must be made with informed consent, as opposed to merely written consent.” Furthermore, consent cannot be given under duress. In V.C v. Slovakia, the consent of a woman was obtained during child labour. This was regarded as consent obtained under duress and did not amount to informed consent. In addition, the Canada Court of Appeals held that the state-run sterilization of women without their consent is “such an extreme violation of basic human rights as to be persecutory.”
The degrading treatment of Uyghur women in the XUAR network of internment camps has persisted for years without resolution. The abusive policies of the Chinese government to cleanse the population of Muslim minorities are nothing short of genocide and require immediate intervention.
Philip Alexander is a second-year law student at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, India.
Suggested citation: Philip Alexander, Forced Sterilization of Uyghur Women is a Violation of a Woman’s Right to Reproductive Autonomy, JURIST – Student Commentary, July 5, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/08/philip-alexander-china-uyghur-women-forced-sterilization/.
This article was prepared for publication by Alina Rizvi,a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org