China’s Forced Sterilization of Uyghur Women Violates Clear International Law

China’s Forced Sterilization of Uyghur Women Violates Clear International Law

As new evidence emerges of the Chinese government’s forcible sterilization of Uyghur women, communities around the world are sure to recognize elements of a familiar pattern. Official measures to control the Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang region reportedly aim for nearly no population growth, through a combination of sterilization and long-term birth control measures. Plans are said to include “subject[ing] at least 80 percent of women of childbearing age … to intrusive birth prevention surgeries” and punishing birth control violations by internment in “training” camps. At the same time, there has been a dramatic increase in the population growth of the Han community, China’s majority ethnic group, in Xinjiang.

Adrian Zenz, the author of the new report on these measures, describes his findings as “rais[ing] concerns that Beijing is doubling down on a policy of Han settler colonialism” and “provid[ing] the strongest evidence yet” that China is carrying out a genocide of the Uyghur population.

Heartbreakingly, forced sterilization is a practice that has persisted into this century and overwhelmingly targets Indigenous women and members of other minority groups, transgender people, persons with disabilities, and intersex people. Failures to eradicate these practices and provide redress for previous eras’ “population control” measures have helped permit involuntary sterilization to continue in many places. In some countries and circumstances, sterilization is mandated or carried out under color of law, while in others it may be illegal but goes unpunished. The body of international law identifying forced sterilization as both an atrocity crime and a human rights violation has expanded to address the many current-day iterations of this form of eugenics, though the challenge of compliance remains.

Troubling Similarities

Though the abuses in Xinjiang may be of a different scale than other recent examples of enforced sterilization practices (possible exceptions include India’s sterilization camps), the methods and the aims remain familiar. Chinese policies in Xinjiang bring to mind compulsory or coercive sterilization campaigns in other countries. In the United States, as many as 25% of Native American women and 35% of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age were sterilized in the 1960s and 1970s, and 20,000 disproportionately Latinx Californians were sterilized in the first half of the century. In Peru, authorities sterilized more than 200,000 mostly rural women between 1996 and 2001. In Uzbekistan, Romani women have been the primary victims of enforced sterilization by the State.