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Uighurs deserve a proportionate reaction to their suffering

Updated: Aug 14

By Isabella Taylor


When will the international community’s response to the persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang become proportional to the severity of the crimes that China has been accused of committing? The persecution of the Uighurs needs a response that seriously acknowledges the degree of suffering being experienced in Xinjiang. The widespread harvesting of human organs from persecuted religious and ethnic minorities,[1] and the violent rape[2] and sterilisation of women preventing them from carrying children[3] while forcing abortions[4], are just a few of the flagrant breaches of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) China has been accused of committing against the Uighur population in Xinjiang.[5] One of the outreach coordinators for the Uighur Human Rights Project, Subayra Shamseden, has stated that the Chinese government’s persecution of Uighur women is an exercise to ‘erase Uighur culture and identity by remaking its women’[6]. Though it has only graced the pages of international newspapers in the last couple of years, and even then, the international attention span has been predictably minimal; it is essential to be aware that China’s recent actions are an extension of a racist, colonial structure in Eastern China that has existed for centuries.[7] However, following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, China was given a new mask for what some Human Rights groups have called ‘ethnic cleansing’[8], this mask is ‘counter-terrorism’. This became the justification for their Islamophobia, and ultimate repression of the Uighur population. The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking minority living in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. Xinjiang literally means ‘New Frontier’, which could be seen to be a reflection of the fact that they were only brought under the full control of the centralised Chinese government during the reign of the Qing dynasty in the 19th Century. Since the late 20th century, there have been clashes between the Han Chinese and this Muslim population, partly because some of Beijing’s targeted settlement policies have ensured that the Han Chinese occupy a big majority in the capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi.[9] This has been catalysed by the actions of Chen Quanguo who took control over Xinjiang in 2016. He has been named the ‘architect’ of the concentration camps that are now prevalent in the region.[10] Some of the reasons that the international community has been hesitant, (or negligent depending on your perspective), in respects to holding China accountable for the alleged crimes against the Uighur people is because of the abstract idea of holding an entire nation accountable. In the Nuremberg Judgment, as Chief Justice Stone makes a case for individuals being tried under international law, he articulates this idea like so: “Crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.”[11] Countries such as the United States have the treaties already in place to do this. For example, the Global Magnitsky Act and the accompanying executive order that made it possible to hold a specific person accountable when they are “responsible for or complicit in, or directly or indirectly engaged in serious human rights abuse,” continuing on to say that they need only “be or have been a leader or official of… an entity, including any government entity, that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in” serious human rights abuses.[12] The Global Magnitsky Act authorises the United States government to identify human rights offenders in foreign countries and sanction them, freeze their assets, or ban them from entering the US amongst more serious retribution. It seems this would be an ideal legal mechanism to hold Chen Quanguo accountable.[13] However, it seems that economic profits have been the priority of the US in recent years.[14] At the UN in October 2019, the US was informed that any potential interference would undermine the ongoing trade negotiations. 22 countries who collectively urged for the termination of the abuses in Xinjiang were also called out by China. China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun repeated the Party’s rhetoric, claiming that there was no truth in the crimes against humanity accusations, and they were a “gross interference in China’s internal affairs and deliberate provocation.”[15] This is the reason for the hesitation to speak out against China about Xinjiang. Europe and America’s continued silence until recently is no doubt a result of the Xinjiang’s placement along the planned Belt and Road project, with heavy Western investment.[16] 37 countries associated with the Belt and Road Initiative came forward in retaliation to the 22 countries condemning China, arguing that the camps were an effective means of counter terrorism.[17] For the intensity of ethnic and religious genocide, mere recognition and coverage are not enough. The genocide ought to be broken down into evident and specific actions, which then can be analysed and associated with specific crimes. Even the coverage that is taking place is not doing justice to the victims, some newspapers have come under fire because of the inadequacy of their acknowledgements.[18] When reporting on Uighur wives whose husbands have been sent to camps, The Independent has been accused of failing to cover the true extent of harassment these women are experiencing. Essentially, once the husbands have been sent to the camps, The Chinese Government assigns party officials to sleep in the same bed as the separated wives, in order to ‘increase unity’,[19] this has been happening since 2017.  According to Human Rights Watch, these visits are “deeply invasive forced assimilation practices”, and they have highlighted the issue that there is no option to decline these advances at risk of being branded as extremists.[20] The UK media need to fully attack the injustice of violent sexual abuse happening in these situations in the future, as they have failed to do so in the past. [21] The restriction of studies of China, with data from areas inhabited by a vast Han Chinese majority, creates an understanding of China that does not include the experience of the minority – this helps keep the injustices being committed against them out of conversations about China, and could risk facilitating an even more sinister future, foreshadowed by the stories of death and suffering that are reaching us now.[22] In the past few months countries have slowly but surely started acknowledging this disaster. In the UK the Conservative Party have just released a Genocide Prevention Bill with specific reference to the struggle of the Uighurs. Although it is progress in the right direction, the actual motivation of making the announcement at this point in time is questionable, considering that a general election is approaching. The US Senate have attempted to put pressure on Trump to take China’s actions more seriously in relation to the Hong Kong protests this week[23], and this must extend to the Uighur population too. Why does political gain, within the UK, or desperately avoiding the risk of financial loss, within the US, have to colour these nations’ decisions about speaking out against rape, torture and death? If you were to glance over the UDHR, there is really no question that what is happening is a categorical rejection to the ethos of the declaration. The violations of religious freedom alone break at least five (No. 2, 16, 28, 29, 22) of the articles. There is evidence of the Chinese Government forcing Muslims to eat pork and drink alcohol, the destruction of churches and mosques, the closure of Halal butchers and shops, parents no longer allowed to name their children Muslim names, and men not allowed to have long beards.[24] The criminalisation of Islam, suggesting that to practise it is an ‘ideological illness,’[25] is deeply abhorrent and is not something any conscious entity should stand for. The family separation policy brought in by the aforementioned Chen Quanguo will completely strip young Uighur Muslims of their religious identity.[26] Over 10% of the adult population has been removed from their families leaving hundreds of thousands of children separated from at least one of their parents. There is no escape for the people in Xinjiang. The excessive surveillance[27]means there are no longer safe environments for Uighurs to go and appreciate their religion and culture, while the actions of Chen Quanguo catalyses Beijing’s efforts to erase their identity. With all the information above at the forefront of your mind, reread Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”[28] Everyone. The men, women, and children being persecuted in Xinjiang deserve a social and international order that ensures they get justice, and are saved from the terror that they are being subjected to. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in reference to Article 28 has said this: “The grave danger we see today is the attempts to undermine and even discard the entire multilateral framework that was designed to protect human rights and prevent conflict. Increasing numbers of leaders no longer pretend to care about human rights, and seek to clamp down on civil society, often using national security as the pretext.”[29] The New York Times release of internal government documents last week is the biggest CCP leak in decades, detailing some of the methods of the repression of the Uighurs, and the significance of this must not be ignored.[30] Similarly, BBC Panorama is set to air a program on the 25th November 2019 exposing ‘brainwashing methods’ discovered through a second leak of documents.[31] It’s a real testimony to the sickening nature of Chen Quanguo’s actions that someone was able to see through a whole lifetime of propaganda immersion and question the morality of what is happening in Xinjiang enough to put themselves at the mercy of the government by releasing these documents. We know what is happening, and with these leaked documents can now evidence it. We know we have the power to do something. We know we need to do something substantial and formidable. So why aren’t we doing enough? Are the Uighurs going to tail end the list of genocides that the world has stood by for, and done nothing, following our grand declarations of intended protection for minorities following the Holocaust? Don’t let it become Rwandans, Bosnians, the Rohingyas, the Yazidis, and now the Uighurs.[32]

[1] Business Insider. (2019). China is harvesting thousands of human organs from its Uighur Muslim minority, UN human-rights body hears. [online] Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/china-harvesting-organs-of-uighur-muslims-china-tribunal-tells-un-2019-9?_ga=2.191581418.1109056851.1573504502-894602665.1572908826&r=US&IR=T [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[2] Ferris-Rotman, A. (2019). Abortions, IUDs and sexual humiliation: Muslim women who fled China for Kazakhstan recount ordeals. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/abortions-iuds-and-sexual-humiliation-muslim-women-who-fled-china-for-kazakhstan-recount-ordeals/2019/10/04/551c2658-cfd2-11e9-a620-0a91656d7db6_story.html [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[3] Lynch, E. (2019). China’s attacks on Uighur women are crimes against humanity. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/21/chinas-attacks-uighur-women-are-crimes-against-humanity/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[4] Ferris-Rotman, A., Toleukhan, A. and Rauhala,, E. (2019). China accused of genocide over forced abortions of Uighur Muslim women as escapees reveal widespread sexual torture. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-uighur-muslim-women-abortions-sexual-abuse-genocide-a9144721.html [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[5] Un.org. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [online] Available at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[6] Shamseden, Z. (2019). ‘I Have Revised My Idea of What a Uighur Heroine Should Be’. [online] ChinaFile. Available at: http://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/viewpoint/i-have-revised-my-idea-of-what-uighur-heroine-should-be [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[7] openDemocracy. (2019). “People will rise up”: Uyghur exile foresees end of China’s ruthless rule. [online] Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/people-will-rise-up-uyghur-exile-foresees-end-of-chinas-ruthless-rule/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[8] Eve, F. (2019). China needs to hear from its peers it cannot commit ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang | Frances Eve. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/03/china-is-committing-ethnic-cleansing-in-xinjiang-its-time-for-the-world-to-stand-up [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019]. [9] Tharoor, I. (2019). A Brief History of the Uighurs. [online] TIME.com. Available at: http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1909416,00.html [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[10] Zheng, W. (2019). Architect of Muslim camps expected to stay on in Xinjiang for now. [online] South China Morning Post. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3003047/architect-chinas-muslim-camps-chen-quanguo-expected-stay [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[11] Crime of Aggression. (2019). INTERNATIONAL MILITARY TRIBUNAL (NUREMBERG) Judgment of 1 October 1946. [online] Available at: https://crimeofaggression.info/documents/6/1946_Nuremberg_Judgement.pdf [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[12] Rian Thum, Rachel Harris, James Leibold, Jessica Batke, Kevin Carrico, Sean R. Roberts (2019). How Should the World Respond to Intensifying Repression in Xinjiang?. [online] ChinaFile. Available at: http://www.chinafile.com/conversation/how-should-world-respond-intensifying-repression-xinjiang [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[13] Humanrightsfirst.org. (2019). The Global Magnitsky Act Frequently Asked Questions April 2019. [online] Available at: https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/hrf-global-magnitsky-faq.pdf [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[14] Aljazeera.com. (2019). China warns US criticism on Uighurs not ‘helpful’ for trade talks. [online] Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/china-warns-criticism-uighurs-helpful-trade-talks-191030005757892.html [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[15] Aljazeera.com. (2019). China warns US criticism on Uighurs not ‘helpful’ for trade talks. [online] Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/china-warns-criticism-uighurs-helpful-trade-talks-191030005757892.html [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[16] Fox, R. (2019). Europe’s silence on China’s treatment of the Uighurs shames the West – Reaction. [online] Reaction. Available at: https://reaction.life/europes-silence-on-chinas-treatment-of-the-uighurs-shames-the-west/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[17] Berlinger, J. (2019). North Korea, Syria and Myanmar among countries defending China’s actions in Xinjiang. [online] CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/07/15/asia/united-nations-letter-xinjiang-intl-hnk/index.html [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[18] DailySabah. (2019). Independent under fire for downplaying China’s sexual abuse of Uighur women. [online] Available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/asia/2019/11/10/independent-under-fire-for-downplaying-chinas-sexual-abuse-of-uighur-women [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[19] Ma, A. (2019). China is reportedly sending men to sleep in the same beds as Uighur Muslim women while their husbands are in prison camps. [online] Business Insider Malaysia. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.my/china-uighur-monitor-home-shared-bed-report-2019-11/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[20] Human Rights Watch. (2019). “Eradicating Ideological Viruses” | China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims. [online] Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/09/eradicating-ideological-viruses/chinas-campaign-repression-against-xinjiangs [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[21] Ferris-Rotman, A. (2019). Abortions, IUDs and sexual humiliation: Muslim women who fled China for Kazakhstan recount ordeals. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/abortions-iuds-and-sexual-humiliation-muslim-women-who-fled-china-for-kazakhstan-recount-ordeals/2019/10/04/551c2658-cfd2-11e9-a620-0a91656d7db6_story.html [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[22] Rian Thum, Rachel Harris, James Leibold, Jessica Batke, Kevin Carrico, Sean R. Roberts (2019). How Should the World Respond to Intensifying Repression in Xinjiang?. [online] ChinaFile. Available at: http://www.chinafile.com/conversation/how-should-world-respond-intensifying-repression-xinjiang [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[23] Wong, E. (2019). Senate Passes Bill to Support Hong Kong Protesters, Putting Pressure on Trump. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/19/world/asia/senate-bill-hong-kong-protests.html?module=inline [Accessed 24 Nov. 2019].

[24] Incetas, B. (2019). Opinion: Chinese Concentration camps of 2019 – The Tacoma Ledger. [online] The Tacoma Ledger. Available at: http://thetacomaledger.com/2019/10/15/opinion-chinese-concentration-camps-of-2019/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[25] Radio Free Asia. (2019). Xinjiang Political ‘Re-Education Camps’ Treat Uyghurs ‘Infected by Religious Extremism’: CCP Youth League. [online] Available at: https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/infected-08082018173807.html/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[26] Samuel, S. (2019). China’s Jaw-Dropping Family Separation Policy. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/09/china-internment-camps-uighur-muslim-children/569062/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[27]Byler, D. (2019). I researched Uighur society in China for 8 years and watched how technology opened new opportunities – then became a trap. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/i-researched-uighur-society-in-china-for-8-years-and-watched-how-technology-opened-new-opportunities-then-became-a-trap-119615 [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[28] Un.org. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [online] Available at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[29] Ohchr.org. (2019). OHCHR | Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: 30 Articles on 30 Articles – Article 28. [online] Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23997&LangID=E [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

[30] Ramzy, A., Buckley, C. and Buckley, A. (2019). ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html [Accessed 18 Nov. 2019].

[31] BBC News. (2019). Data leak details China’s ‘brainwashing system’. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-50511063 [Accessed 24 Nov. 2019].

[32] Carroll, R. (2019). US chose to ignore Rwandan genocide. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/mar/31/usa.rwanda [Accessed 24 Nov. 2019].


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