Nearly two dozen activist organizations and sixteen experts on genocide from American and European universities have implored the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to investigate China’s human rights violations against the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang. The open letter to the UN, signed by groups including the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) on September 15th, argues that the Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uighurs. Under international law, proof of genocide is particularly difficult. The letter also urges the UNHRC to “develop strategies” to end the atrocity, according to Al Jazeera, VOA News, and the UN.
Xinjiang, officially an autonomous region, is located in northwest China. The region is home to twelve million Uighurs, according to China’s foreign ministry, writes VOA News. According to Al Jazeera, at least one million of these Uighurs are currently held in camps. The Chinese government has said these camps are vocational training centers necessitated by “counterterrorism and de-radicalization measures.”
The open letter contends there is “mounting evidence” that “genocide [is] taking place” against the Uighurs in Xinjiang. “Under the guise of curbing …extremism, the Chinese government has intensified widespread and systematic policies to repress Uighurs …on the basis of their religious and ethnic identities,” states the letter. The letter continues: “The atrocities include arbitrary detention of between 1 and 1.8 million people in internment camps, …political indoctrination, enforced disappearances, destruction of cultural sites, forced labour, disproportionate rates of prison incarceration, and coercive birth prevention campaigns and policies.” From this, the letter concludes that the Chinese government’s actions “meet the threshold of acts constitutive of genocide” under the Genocide Convention, writes Al Jazeera.
In an interview with VOA News, Peter Irwin, a senior program officer at the UHRP, said that existing evidence warrants the creation of a Commission of Inquiry into violations against the Uighurs under the UNHRC. “Such a Commission of Inquiry is not without precedent. The UN sets up these bodies regularly to gather information, and analyze and report on violations of international law,” stated Irwin. Unfortunately, Irwin added, proposals to investigate this issue have been ignored due to opposition from China, which wields significant authority and influence within the UN and has never been the object of a UNHRC resolution.
Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet reported in a speech to the UNHRC on September 14th that she was organizing an official visit to Xinjiang. The speech has been met largely with disappointment from activists. In an interview with Reuters, Sarah Brooks of the International Service for Human Rights stated that “Bachelet’s remarks on China say nothing of substance: no word about the human costs of China’s rights violations, including against Uighurs. … Instead, the remarks speak volumes about the weak position of the human rights office vis-a-vis China.”
According to the Chinese foreign ministry, the Chinese government had not read the letter as of September 15th. Nonetheless, the ministry dismissed allegations from activists as “farcical attempt[s] to smear and discredit China.” The ministry also claimed that China provides equal protection to ethnic minorities, writes US News.
The letter contributes to the already growing international pressure on the Chinese government over its actions against the Uighurs. On September 14th, the EU pressed China to allow independent observers into Xinjiang. The following day, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman responded that the EU is “welcome” to visit the region to “understand the real situation and not rely on hearsay.” However, the spokesman did not confirm whether EU observers would be allowed to travel freely in the region, according to Al Jazeera.
Though China has dismissed past criticism from Western governments as “neo-colonialism,” the letter may prove too powerful to ignore, according to Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, writes Al Jazeera. “The significance of this letter is that most of the signatories are academics …that focuses exclusively on the prevention and punishment of atrocity crimes, including genocide. No amount of diplomatic spin or disinformation can take away the fact that the signatories of the letter are experts speaking truth to power,” stated Matthews.
Though this letter marks an unprecedented step towards investigating the Uighur genocide, there remains much progress to be made before the atrocity is ended. Above all, this is because China faces little accountability before the international community, as a powerful country and permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) with veto power. Given that restructuring the UNSC is beyond consideration, the strategy of actively applying normative pressure on China, which the letter has championed, is the greatest tool at the disposal of human rights advocates. As the letter itself implores, writes VOA News, the UN must use “diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means” in pursuit of this strategy. This way, the international community may succeed in bringing about peace through peaceful means.
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