GENEVA (REUTERS, AFP) - Nearly two dozen activist groups said on Tuesday (Sept 15) that crimes against humanity and genocide are taking place against Uighurs in China's remote Xinjiang region, where more than a million people are held in camps.
The open letter signed by groups including the United States-based Uighur Human Rights Project and Genocide Watch calls on the United Nations Human Rights Council to launch an investigation.
"The atrocities include arbitrary detention of between one and 1.8 million people in internment camps, a widespread programme of political indoctrination, enforced disappearances, destruction of cultural sites, forced labour, disproportionate rates of prison incarceration, and coercive birth prevention campaigns and policies," it said.
Under international law, crimes against humanity are defined as widespread and systematic, whereas the burden of proof of genocide - the intent to destroy part of a population - is more difficult to prove.
"These measures meet the threshold of acts constitutive of genocide, core international crimes under the Genocide Convention, which prohibits 'imposing measures intended to prevent births' among an ethnic or religious group," the groups said.
China has said that the camps are vocational education and training centres as part of counter-terrorism and deradicalisation measures. Its said criticism of its handling of Xinjiang is politically motivated, and based on lies about what happens in the vast facilities it has built.
On Tuesday, China said that European Union observers are free to visit Xinjiang to truly understand the situation there.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the bloc is welcome to visit the area "to truly understand the real situation and not rely on hearsay".
He said at a regular media briefing: "The EU has raised their desire to visit Xinjiang, China has already agreed and is willing to make arrangements."
China has rebuffed past calls to grant independent access to Xinjiang, and Mr Wang did not confirm that EU observers would be allowed to travel freely in the region.
In December, China invited Arsenal footballer Mesut Ozil to visit Xinjiang and see the situation for himself after he decried the treatment of the Uighurs and criticised Muslim countries for failing to speak up about the alleged abuses.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Monday that she was discussing a possible visit to Xinjiang with Chinese authorities who are facing growing backlash over the treatment of ethnic Uighurs.
But activists voiced disappointment in her speech to the Human Rights Council, where China has never been the object of a resolution.
"Bachelet's remarks on China say nothing of substance - no word about the human costs of China's rights violations, including against Uighurs and in Hong Kong, nor the ongoing concerns about free expression, arbitrary detention and crackdowns on civil society," Ms Sarah Brooks of the International Service for Human Rights told Reuters.
"Instead, the remarks speak volumes about the weak position of the human rights office vis-a-vis China," she said.
The US on Monday shelved plans for a broad import ban on cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang while announcing narrower bans on products from five specific entities.
US officials said the measures were aimed at combating China's use of forced labour by detained Uighur Muslims.