The Detainment of Uighur Muslims: An Ineffective Approach to Counterterrorism

Image showing detained Uighur Muslims in the re-education camps.
Detained Uighur Muslims. Source: 牙生, Yahoo Images.

For the past several months, the plight of the Uighur Muslims (pronounced wē-ˌgu̇r) has been covered extensively in national and international news. Under the guise of counterterrorism, the Chinese government has been holding the Uighur in detention camps. While the detention of the Uighur is in and of itself a human rights violation, the torture and inhumane treatment that they experience in these camps has been the greatest cause for concern for human rights activists. Undeniably, the detainment and treatment of the Uighur is concerning, but the counterterrorism measures taken by the Chinese government are just as concerning; not only are they arguably ineffective for decreasing the likelihood of attacks, but they also could inadvertently lead to an increase in radicalization.

Background

The Uighur are a Muslim, Turkish-speaking minority group who make up less than 1 percent of the Chinese population, or around 11 million people. Xinjiang, the province in which the majority of the Uighur live, was annexed in 1949 and has been under China’s control since. While the Uighur have historically been subject to discrimination by the Chinese government, this discrimination increased when the Chinese government formally identified the Uighur as a threat to security in China. It is irresponsible to claim that all Uighur are a security threat, but there have been attacks carried out by Uighur militants in China; the Turkistan Islamic Movement, an extremist Islamic group founded by Uighur militants, has carried out more than 200 attacks with the goal of creating an independent state for the Uighur. While the Chinese government has an obligation to protect the citizens of China, this does not justify the Chinese government’s discrimination against and detainment of the Uighur.

Measures taken by the Chinese Government

China first began its crackdown on the Uighur in 2017, when men were prohibited from growing long beards, women were prohibited from wearing the niqab, or the face veil, and several mosques were demolished. Further, the government began using face recognition technology and phone monitoring to track the Uighur. However, the Chinese government took the most drastic measures a few months ago, when over a million Uighur were detained and placed in camps. When reports first began to emerge on the mass detention of the Uighur, the Chinese government claimed that the camps were solely vocational training centers. However, this past November, leaked governmental documents proved that the camps were built to be re-education centers in which the Uighur are forced to renounce their religion and language, or simply put, their identities.

The Camps  

The purpose of re-educating the Uighur is highlighted throughout the leaked documents, wherein it is made clear that they must not only renounce their previous beliefs and traditions but must also accept and adhere to the new beliefs they are indoctrinated with. Thus, the process of indoctrination is twofold; first, the Uighur are forced to admit that their belief in Islam is illegal, criminal, and dangerous, highlighting the negative views the Chinese government holds towards Islam, and second, they are forced to pledge allegiance to President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. In an interview with Uighur-American lawyer and human rights advocate Nury Turkel, the Intercept details the methods used to ensure the success of the re-education process. Based on testimonials of people who have fled the country, the process includes starvation, sterilization, torture, rape, and even killing. According to Turkel, this is all done to eradicate the Uighurs’ religious and ethnic identities, as these identities are perceived as signs of disloyalty to the Chinese government.

Image showing the outside of the re-education camps.
Exterior of a re-education camp. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Wrong Approach

While measures must be taken against any group of people who pose a security threat to a country, the methods used by the Chinese government are inhumane. After the vast number of attacks carried out by Uighur fighters, it is understandable that the Chinese government should attempt to deter future attacks from happening. However, the methods that have been implemented are not only violating innocent people’s basic human rights, but they may also have the reverse effect. There are examples that have occurred elsewhere that can be used to highlight this. First, Tajik officer Gulmorod Khalimov, who made headlines after he left the Tajik army to join ISIS. He explained that he made this decision after he was exposed to anti-Muslim rhetoric during his anti-terrorism course training in the United States, illustrating that a harmful or negative rhetoric about Muslims, similar to the one currently being propagated in China, can lead to and encourage radicalization. Second, when David Cameron, previous British Prime Minister, announced his plans for cracking down on extremists in Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain argued that this would only push people further towards radicalization, noting that the “problem is the constant talk of legislation, harassment, and monitoring… [which] is what’s leading young people towards radicalism.” This is another instance that exemplifies the faulty approach taken by the Chinese government; when stringent measures are taken, such as monitoring and detainment in the case of the Uighur, there can be the unexpected outcome of increased extremism.

The Chinese government claims that they have detained the Uighur to prevent terrorism and extremism, but the methods used are neither humane nor effective. While there need to be measures taken to guarantee the safety of the citizens of China, there are many other methods that can be utilized to achieve this. Further, if the Chinese government does indeed want to address this problem, an approach that does not involve stigmatizing a whole ethnic group and religion is the only way to effectively do so.

Solitary Confinement Amounting to Torture

Image of concrete walls allowing some sunshine with a small window near the top.
jmiller291. Solitary Confinement, Old Geelong Gaol 7. Creative Commons for Flickr.

In the United States, the earliest experiments with solitary confinement began over two centuries ago, during the Enlightenment. Champions of the idea of natural rights, thinkers of the era found that public corporate punishment was incompatible with the development of a free citizen. Instead, silence and solitude would allow prisoners to reflect and that would induce repentance that would drive prisoners to live a more responsible life, making individuals the instrument of their own punishment. However, as the United States’ first silent prisons and penitentiaries were publicized, renowned nineteenth-century thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens visited these institutions to observe these revolutionary systems. Once intrigued, these icons now condemned these silent prisons as de Tocqueville remarked,

This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, itkills.

As other physicians and experts echoed their concerns, reporting the high risk and evidence of insanity and death of inmates existing in solitude, it gained the attention of the United States Supreme Court which influenced a new philosophy in correctional administration and gradually reduced the regularity of the practice.

This period of relief lasted until prisons began using solitary confinement to segregate more “threatening” and “dangerous” prisoners who were considered a risk to the safety of other prisoners and staff. Then, retribution and deterrence replaced rehabilitation as the professional purpose of corrections. As the U.S. responded by institutionalizing longer sentences, building more prisons, and abolishing parole, the use of solitary confinement rapidly increased with prison growth.

Today, the United States not only incarcerates more people than any other nation, but we also expose more of these people to solitary confinement than any other nation. The United States holds around 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement typically as punishment, as a tactic to control overcrowded institutions, and as safety from or for the general population.

As individuals, inmates tell us what it is like in solitary confinement. In solitary confinement, your world is a gray concrete box. You may spend around 23 hours a day alone in your cell which are only furnished with a toilet, sink, and bed. When prisoners are escorted out of their cells, they are first placed in restraints through the cuff port and sometimes with additional leg or waist chains and tethered by the hooks on their cuffs to an officer. Prisoners are controlled by bodily restraints, with pervasive and unforgiving round the clock surveillance, and the restricting hallways and cells they exist in. They are lead to solitary exercise each day and a brief shower three times a week then back to their cells. Confined to their own concrete cells, prisoners are both physically and psychologically removed from anyone else. Prisoners depend on officers to bring them anything they may need and are allowed to have such as toilet paper, books, or letters they may receive. Many prisoners relate with dark thoughts that haunt them in isolation. Many become angry and hateful behind compliance.

Where many express anger, they all express a struggle to maintain dignity and a sense of self or humanity. Being alone, prisoners forget how to interact with others. Feeling as though they have nothing to live for in isolation, prisoners may give up on these things. Many interviews describe watching others who were locked in indefinite solitary choosing between giving up by either through suicide or turning into an unfeeling and uncaring creature. Correctional facilities’ workers express their concerns as to why and how they become desensitized through strict policy, regulation, and the specialized emotional stance necessary to interact with these prisoners. Acting as servants for the lives of some bad apples, observing civilized men be reduced to the natural man, and acting in adherence to authority with little voice heard by superiors, this work requires a specialized emotional stance.

Instead of regular and healthy social relationships important to human survival, these prisoners are embedded in a structure that extends itself into them. It enters their mind and sometimes switches off the human inside or sometimes forces it to become violent enough to compete. In this way, it also robs them of self-determination, liberty, and other forms of autonomy.

Image of protesters of solitary confinement holding signs connecting solitary confinement to torture and mental illness.
Felton Davis. 16-11-23 02 Union Square Vigil. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Because the practice of solitary confinement is a global one and brings claims of widespread abuse, the UN special rapporteur presented his report, or evaluation, of solitary confinement. This rapporteur defined prolonged solitary confinement as isolation for more than fifteen days because studies show that the effects of solitary confinement may become irreversible after this point as the rapporteur concluded that solitary confinement can amount to torture or cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.

International and domestic laws prohibit all forms of Racial Discrimination, which address variations in solitary confinement’s demographics, and rights of persons with disabilities which protect individuals with mental, or other, illnesses. They also guarantee the rights of women and children or juveniles, which are especially vulnerable under conditions of solitary confinement or isolation. Both sides address the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. More specifically, they address conditions of solitary confinement which always may apply to every individual.

Domestically, the Eighth Amendment reveals how the United States Constitution addresses Solitary Confinement. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the government from inflicting “cruel or unusual punishment” on someone convicted of a crime. This allows these prisoners to challenge their conditions while in custody and the actions of prison officials. To do this, prisoners must first show that the challenged condition is “sufficiently serious” and that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference to the condition. Close observation of court decisions reveals that there is no organized methodology to determine what makes a condition “sufficiently serious”. This decision is made in each case by the personal standards of judges. The judge may question why the prisoner was placed there; however, the Supreme Court has not made a ruling whether intent should play a part in this evaluation. Courts disagree whether it should matter why the individual was placed in solitary confinement. Also, the Amendment did not answer when a prison condition is punishment or not. The debate remains whether the effect of the conditions on the prisoner or the intent of officials makes them punishment. In court, Eighth Amendment analysis hinges on the motivations of state actors and prison officials it is supposed to act as a check against. The conditions of the Eighth Amendment fail to protect prisoners from inhumane treatment through the scope of prison officials’ intent and judges’ objective analysis.

The ICCPR is international law that prohibits torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It later states that people deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of a person and the treatment approach for prisoners should be aimed at efficiently improving their reformation and social rehabilitation.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Mandela Rules that prohibited restrictions and disciplinary sanctions that could amount to torture or cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, such as Indefinite Solitary Confinement, Prolonged solitary confinement, or to place a prisoner in a dark or constantly lit cell. It defined solitary confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact and prolonged solitary confinement for any time period over fifteen days. It states that solitary confinement should only be used as a last case resort for the shortest time possible and given due process to each case. Finally, it paid special attention to protect prisoners with disabilities which may be magnified, and especially vulnerable women and children from solitary confinement.

Through these treaties and agreements, States do not only assume obligations internationally but to their own people as well. Just like our own constitution, these international laws were agreed to and are legally binding to regulate the conduct of states with their citizens. However, without international forces to enforce and regulate these agreements, states may ignore or lose sight of their importance.

Despite these resolutions, Domestic laws are vague so that it is doubtful they meet minimum requirements regarding the ones set by human rights instruments. This creates debate and little guarantees in the legal system. They also undermine fundamental guarantees of due process, are applied randomly, and do not protect the prisoners’ rights.

Today tens of thousands of humans remain alone in concrete boxes in the United States. This report concludes that their conditions are emotionally, physically, and psychologically destructive. They are destructive because it robs us of many things that makes life human and bearable like stimulus through social interaction and interaction with the natural world. Under total control and out of the public eye, people may be subjected to incredible human rights violations. By allowing our government to ignore these people, we are accepting this indifference towards others under its care. By ignoring their human rights, in this way, we diminish our own.