Key Forces Behind China’s Uyghur Detention Camps: Why we repeatedly feel powerless in the face of catastrophe

According to experts and US government officials, since April 2017, between 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained in high security prison camps in Xinjiang.  The ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) describes them as re-education camps necessary to provide vocational training and deradicalization in response to Uyghur separatist militancy. Yet, the harsh reality is that Uyghurs from all walks of life are being detained in camps without charges, warrants, or trials. In a calculated attempt to emotionally and physically debilitate the Uyghur population, millions are thrust into forced labour far from home, where outside of work they must undergo Mandarin and ideological training. In these camps, women face forced sterilization and sexual abuse and children are made to think Islam is an infectious disease. For years, it has seemed evident that the CPC’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims amounts to ethnic cleansing, but if so–why is it so difficult for the international community to take action against such atrocities? 

Chinese Censorship of Incriminating Evidence

Though the global community is aware of the presence of injustices, it is difficult for anyone to explore in depth the extent of the horrors that are transpiring. Chinese officials tightly control any examination of camps carried out by journalists and foreign investigators. Although China has allowed the UN to visit the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry emphasizes that “the purpose of the visit is to promote exchanges and cooperation between the two sides, not to conduct a so-called ‘investigation’ with a presumption of guilt.” China also explicitly warns against the use of these visits as a form of political manipulation to exert pressure against China. 

The only tangible evidence with which to evaluate the circumstances therefore comes from leaked government documents and fragments of evidence that are surfaced by individuals seeking justice. As freedom of speech is severely compromised in China, citizens and activists must risk their lives to expose the true nature of the Uyghur detention camps. Many have been swiftly tracked down and subjected to imprisonment or torturous punishment by the government as a result of their actions. 

Luckily, there do exist leaked documents that date all the way back to November 2019, where over 400 pages of internal Chinese documents came to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists via a chain of exiled Uyghurs. These documents were authenticated by several leading experts and confirm the coercive nature of the crackdown on Uyghurs in the very language of the officials who orchestrated it. They expose President Xi Jinping’s privately delivered speeches to officials, in which he called for a harsh response against Uyghur “militancy.” Following a visit to Xinjiang in 2014, weeks after Uyghur militants stabbed over 150 people at a train station, killing 31 people, Xi Jinping is recorded in the documents calling for a “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism” using the “organs of dictatorship,” and showing “absolutely no mercy.” Here, Xi Jinping’s words prove China’s intentions to willfully weaken the Uyghur population. 

The Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, in cooperation with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, has even conducted an extensive review of the available evidence by involving 50 global experts in human rights, war crimes and international law. Overall, they conclude that the Chinese governments actions in Xinjiang violate every provision in the United Nations’ Genocide Convention. Despite unveiling China’s countless breaches of the convention, no sufficient action is being taken by the international community, bringing to question the legitimacy and efficacy of the role of global governance. 

Systemic Flaws within the UN

In the global community, the term genocide holds great significance and impact. It is understood as a legal term, which implies that it must be proven beyond doubt before governments are willing to use the word or act on it. The main means for determining genocide is through the United Nations, but this process can be exceptionally slow and its success depends on the level of urgency and the willingness of member states to back a contentious claim. The process is thus easily blocked by countries with veto power or those who can command a majority of votes.

Under international law, there are two main avenues that could hold China accountable for their crimes against the Uyghurs. However, both avenues are blocked due to the structure of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC has 15 member states, 5 of which are permanent members, including China. At least 9 members including all permanent members must vote in the affirmative, so a veto by even 1 permanent member has the power to block the passage of a resolution. China has stopped all talks of drafting a resolution on the Uyghurs, labeling it an “internal matter.” Even if a resolution was drafted, it is probable that China would veto it.

Evidently, the UNSC must be radically and swiftly reformed in a way that does not involve unnecessarily lengthy negotiation. Although the US has imposed sanctions on China and the international community has expressed concern, this is insufficient for concrete action to prevent further atrocities against the Uyghur population from taking place. 

In the past, the international community has consecutively made the fatal mistake of treading too lightly and avoiding the term ‘genocide.’ One such example is the UN’s unwillingness and incapacity to aid in halting the Rwandan genocide of 1994. There was a persistent lack of political will by member states to act with enough assertiveness, affecting the Secretariat’s response and Security Council’s decision-making. On top of this, a recurrent difficulty getting the necessary troops for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) ultimately led to inaction. 

With many resources at their disposal, the United Nations should have been able to intervene in what was so evidently a genocide. As a response to this failure, ten years after the Rwandan Genocide, Secretary-General Kofi Annan unveiled a five-point plan for the United Nations to prevent future genocides. He highlighted the importance for “swift and decisive action,” urging the global community to “not wait until the worst has happened, or is already happening”. He even appointed a new Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide to serve as an early-warning mechanism to make recommendations on actions that can be taken. 

Since the 1948 Genocide Convention, most convictions for genocide have occurred in the International Criminal Tribunals held by the UN. For instance, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and several national courts have undergone this process. Despite an attempt at reform, the crucial flaws embedded in the UN’s framework have yet to be resolved. Any establishment of an International Criminal Tribunal still requires the approval of the UN Security Council, over which China has veto power. Additionally, the convention laid out no punishment or penalties against those who committed acts of genocide, essentially making it incredibly facile for China to now evade any accountability for their actions. 

China’s Role as a Global Economic Power: Insight from an Uyghur activist

An Uyghur activist, Wu’er Kaixi, managed to flee China and has lived in exile ever since, settling in Taiwan. He was formerly part of the Tiananmen generation of Chinese activists who dared to demand freedom and democracy in Beijing in 1989, and remains a significant dissident voice. In a podcast with BBC, Kaixi highlights the involvement of Turkey in the Uyghur genocide, stating the importance of sharing common cultural and ethnic roots. 

As a Turkic tribe with predominantly Muslim roots, Uyghurs have long felt safe in Turkey. They share a common linguistic, cultural and religious heritage with the Turks. Since opening its doors to the Uyghurs escaping political persecution in China, Turkey is now home to the world’s largest Uyghur diaspora community. In fact, Erdogan was one of very few Islamic majority country leaders to express early condemnation against China because there is a very large Uyghur population in Turkey and if there ever was to be ambivalence from the government, this would create domestic tension in Turkish politics. In order to ease the tension with Turkey, the Chinese government agreed to release some of the Uyghurs in camps with ties to relatives in Turkey. Out of what is believed to be about 1.5 million (in 2020), a mere 1,000 were sent altogether. The small proportion of detainees released points to the action being largely an attempt by China to appease the Turks, as it did not actually change Chinese policy. 

Despite recognizing the situation as a genocide, the Turkish government’s role as a safe haven for Uyghurs is shifting. Complicated geopolitical implications have made Turkey hesitant to bash the Chinese government. On the one hand, Turkish officials do not want to see the deterioration of relations with Western countries, but on the other hand, they seek to forge strong ties with Beijing to attract investment, financing and Chinese vaccines against COVID-19. Currently, a steady flow of vaccines at a price that the Turkish economy can afford requires Ankara, the capital, to remain largely silent on Uyghurs. This decision to prioritize relations with China has left the Uyghur population feeling confused and neglected. 

Growing up in China as an Uyghur minority member, Mr. Kaixi felt discrimination in all aspects of life. He describes feeling it “in the air,” even as a leader of the Chinese democracy movement. Kaixi also argues that if the CPC had always treated them equally, the Uyghurs probably would not have nearly as much separatist sentiment. 

While Kaixi appreciates the strong moral standard of BBC in feeling the need to do something to help, he simultaneously criticizes the BBC for thinking they must gather more evidence in order to report on this topic. Interestingly, Kaixi angers the British host of the podcast by comparing the lack of action from the international community to other past genocides. He justifies the comparison by stating that if we do not over-exaggerate the conditions, nobody will actually intervene and recognize the magnitude of the problem. In this sense, Wu’er Kaixi is right. In fact, the circumstances are much more overwhelming than the little snippets of evidence we are able to come into contact with, as very few people are able to put their lives at risk to obtain evidence. The world should feel the same outrage for the Uyghur population that they feel for any genocide or life under threat.

As of March 2021, the US, EU, Britain, and Canada have sanctioned China, putting economic pressure on China to stop the inhumane acts against the Uyghurs. Though sanctions on a few imports are in place, determined researcher Adrian Zenz, who has exposed many of China’s crimes committed against the Uyghurs, urged Congress to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would block all imports from Xinjiang unless there is proof they were not tied to forced labor. 

As long as a harsh stance is not made against China, they pose a grave threat. Wu’er Kaixi urges listeners to not dismiss the voices of Uyghur activists simply because they are dissidents, and hopes countries can stop being blinded by their economic ties to China to dismiss the looming threats. If people continue to fear using their voices against authority and fail to hold powerful agents accountable, they run the risk of becoming bystanders in the act of genocide.

Featured image by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images.

By Derya Ekin

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