Canada, It’s Time to Really Step Up Against the Uyghur Genocide

The systematic genocide against the Uyghur ethnic group in the East Turkestan region (known in China as Xinjiang province) is not new news. The earliest known Chinese government document which laid the blueprints for the mass internment campaign, which the Uyghur have been subjected to for over five years, is from May 2013. Since 2016, more than three million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities have been detained in concentration camps. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has repeatedly denied accusations of genocide or wrongdoing, claiming that their state policy towards the Uyghur is “fighting terrorism.” The Chinese government has used every tactic in the book: violent threats and the use of surveillance to intimidate the international community, more specifically the heroic advocates around the world, into silence and submission. In July 2019, Mehmet Tothi, a prominent Uyghur Canadian activist, was hours away from publicly testifying before the Subcommittee on International Human Rights about the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur population when he received a message on Twitter: “Your f—ing mother is dead.” Three years prior, Tothi lost contact with his mother. To this day, he does not know whether his mom is alive or dead. In the face of the ruthless tormenting of Uyghur voices, the Canadian government, and Canadians alike must step up and act to demonstrate that the Uyghur plight is not silenced. 

The Canadian Government’s Grave Irresponsibility 

On February 23rd, Canada’s House of Commons voted to officially declare China’s treatment of the Uyghur population a genocide. The motion made Canada the second country, after the United States, to designate China’s policies as genocide. What the Canadian government wants from us as constituents is to applaud them, to congratulate them for acting upon the rallying cries from Canadian activists to hold China accountable. We cannot do that. While the MPs in the House of Commons showed up for the Uyghurs, Prime Minister Trudeau and senior members of the cabinet were absent during the voting. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau was present during the vote and abstained “on behalf of the government of Canada.” What the Canadian government is doing is engaging in two-level games, exhibiting a perceptively duplicitous side. In a webinar last month, entitled Canada’s Response to the Uyghur Crisis, MP Garnett Genuis explicitly stated the government’s objectives in tactically abstaining from the vote: the government can proclaim internationally that they did not support the motion to classify China’s actions as genocide. Genuis criticized the Canadian government for reaping the benefits at home amongst its constituency, but simultaneously maintaining a deceptive posture on the international stage. 

Surely when Canada, alongside the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union, recently announced sanctions against four high-ranking Chinese officials, the Canadian government deserved celebration. Not exactly. While the sanctions are an important step to holding China accountable for gross human right violations, why is it that the Canadian government will stand beside the protective shield of the United States and the European Union and issue sanctions, but succumb to cowardice in their refusal to overtly call China’s actions what they are: genocide? Prime Minister Trudeau has called the term genocide “extremely loaded” and said that further examination is needed before such a declaration could be made. Chinese officials have justified the mass internment of Uyghurs as a process of “eradicating tumours.” Mr. Trudeau, the evidence for genocide is overwhelming. 

The Newlines Institute and Policy and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights released an independent expert report concluding that the Republic of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs constitutes a breach of the 1948 Genocide Convention. Under Article II of the Genocide Convention, genocide is defined as any one of five acts—1) killing; 2) causing serious bodily or mental harm, including rape; 3) infliction of conditions calculated to bring about physical destruction; 4) imposition of measures intended to prevent births; 5) forcible transfer of children—when conducted with an intent to destroy a people in whole or part. The report explicitly outlines that China is in violation of every provision of Article II of the Genocide Convention which implicates China as bearing state responsibility for committing genocide. China has exhibited an overt “intent to destroy” towards the Uyghur ethnic group. The policies of the CPC have perpetuated a campaign of erasure of faith, language, history and culture. Uyghurs have been forced to eat pork, as well as violate other religious belief observances. Detained Uyghurs have faced incessant psychological torture coercing them to denounce their identity, religious practices, and confess to their backwardness. Additionally, there have been measures to destroy Uyghur reproductive capacities through forced IUDs and abortion. As a State party, Canada is responsible under international law to punish these acts of genocide and to actively condemn them. Failing to uphold the obligations put forward by the Genocide Convention is an act of complicity in genocide. 

Our Role as Students 

What can we do as students? Rayhan Asat, a Harvard educated lawyer, whose brother, Ekpar Asat has been detained in a Chinese internment camp for five years, says that we as university students have so much power to be an agent of change in the lives of many. Our intellectually charged spirits must be put to task to stand alongside the Uyghurs and be the voice for the voiceless. This starts with demanding more of the Canadian government. Irwin Cotler, the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, outlines what actions the government should be taking, including implementing the Forced Labour Prevention Act, fast-tracking asylum applications for Uyghur refugees and human rights activists, calling for the relocation of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, imposing sanctions under the Magnitsky Act on all officials involved, declaring that China’s actions constitute genocide, and calling upon G7 partners to follow suit. Any form of lobbying is of value: signing petitions, writing letters to policymakers, calling your local MP— tell those in positions of power that the Uyghur plight is a Canadian responsibility. It is also paramount that we amplify the voices of Uyghur activists that the Chinese government is trying to silence. 

The CPC has relocated more than 80,000 Uyghurs out of Xinjiang to work in factories under conditions of forced labour. Chinese labour chains, which are being supported by Uyghur labour, are the backbone for several global corporate giants. This reality implicates the global supply chain as perpetuating abuse against the Uyghurs. It has been reported that brands including Apple, Amazon, BMW, Gap, General Motors, Nike, Zara, Uniqlo, Victoria Secret and many more are potentially directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of forced Uyghur labour. We as consumers must not only call for boycotts of these brands, but we too must boycott them as much as possible to prove that capitalism does not supersede human rights. Stop being complicit in forced labour practices that are inextricably linked to the CPC’s genocidal policies and inform your friends and family to follow along. 

First and foremost, educate yourselves and those around you. The resources are numerous: as an example, the Campaign for Uyghurs, Uyghur Human Rights Project, and the Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom are valuable platforms to follow. For activism on the McGill campus, check out McGill Students for Uyghur Freedom. There is so much work to be done on campus and beyond.

Drone footage has shown men with their heads shaven, shackled and blindfolded being shuffled onto trains. This is a horrifying and all-too-real image that we have seen before and we know the consequences of silence and inaction. The history of the Uyghur people and humanity is being written once again, and we cannot say we did not know. If we are not screaming, we are not being loud enough.

By Mackenzie Birbrager

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