Why the treatment of Uighur Muslims serves as a reminder that genocide still occurs in our society

Under Xi Jinping, China has overseen a brutal crackdown on Muslim minorities in the far Western province of Xinjiang. Out of the 11 million Uighur Muslims living in the region, an estimated 3 million have been detained in so-called ‘rehabilitation camps’, where detainees appear to learn new skills for the workplace and taught Mandarin in an effort to combat extremist ideology. These camps, however, aren’t focused on helping Uighurs improve their lives – they are instead used to eliminate all aspects of Uighur culture by forcing them to adopt Chinese customs and values.

These examples – amongst other hideous acts of abuse – amount to genocide. When we think of genocide, we usually conjour up images of the Holocaust, for it’s the most well known example. Every year for International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27th January, we come together to condemn such horrific acts of violence and vow “never again”. Yet time and time again, we see events just like what we are seeing right now in China and do nothing to alleviate the suffering of others. It raises the question as to why this still happens in our society and whether this truly is a repeat of history.

Who are the Uighurs?

The Uighurs, otherwise known as Uyghurs, are an ethnic Muslim minority group who live in the far-western region of Xinjiang. They are culturally closer to Central Asian nations and speak a language similar to Turkish.

Uighurs have always had a hostile relationship with the Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China. Tensions came to a head in July 2009 when riots broke out in the provincial capital of Ürümqi. Once Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he ordered a crackdown after a spate of attacks in and out of Xinjiang in the early 2010s. He commanded anyone deemed a threat to national security to be sent to these ‘rehabilitation camps’. This has led to increased surveillance across the entire region; according to China security and surveillance experts Adrian Zenz and James Leibold, over 160,000 surveillance cameras were installed across the region in the city of Ürümqi in 2016 alone.

Along with the increased presence of surveillance cameras, Uighurs  held in these camps have faced physical, emotional and sexual abuse. There have been reports that detained Uighurs are being exploited for cheap labour. Other disturbing instances of abuse include reports of forced sterilisation amongst Uighur women. As shown below, sterilisation rates in Xinjiang have dramatically increased.

Source via CNN

This is a gross human rights violation – yet the rest of the world is on the sidelines doing nothing. But when reflecting on past events in history, this is  unsurprising. We’ve stood by and let this happen constantly throughout history, only offering help once it is too late.

What constitutes as genocide?

With the word genocide being thrown around to describe the situation in Xinjiang, it is important to analyse what is actually happening to Uighurs and whether these acts do constitute as genocide. Contrary to popular knowledge, the act of killing a group of people is not the only crime which constitutes as genocide. Therefore, all allegations have to be examined and scrutinised to determine whether they are in violation of international law.

The word ‘genocide’ was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943. Combining the Greek word genos (meaning race or tribe) with the Latin word cide (meaning to kill), Lemkin campaigned for genocide to become an internationally recognised crime by organisations such as the United Nations. In December 1948, the United Nations unveiled the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of Genocide, which came into affect in January 1951. It  rules that genocide – committed in times of either peace or war – is a crime under international law. Under Article II of the Convention, it reads the following;  

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Since it came into effect in January 1951, 152 countries have ratified the Convention as of July 2019. However, there have been a number of incidents since where certain groups have been targeted in a campaign of violence and extremist ideology. It is difficult to determine whether an act can be ruled as genocide, especially when there are other terms which could describe a scenario such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘mass killing’. The broad definition makes it tough to apply the label on an incident, making it easier for the act to be carried out.

When studying the allegations made by Uighurs in great detail, one may conclude that the Chinese government is committing a genocide against the Uighurs. Forced sterilisation violates Act 4 of the convention and constitutes an act of genocide. Additionally, former detainees have spoken of mental problems caused by the camps, and this therefore violates Act 2 of the convention. With this in mind, it is vital to hold China to account soon for the situation will only deteriorate further if left unaddressed.

How come we are still seeing genocide today?

A recurring theme when it comes to genocide is the idea that one group of people – whether it be regarding race, religion or nationality – are superior than others. Notably, we saw it with Hitler and his Nazi ideology, and this is strikingly similar to the ideology held by the Chinese government officials towards Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. This type of ideology feeds into people’s stereotypes of a minority group, thus creating hostility and hatred towards minorities.

Another reason as to why genocide comes about is that those who commit these heinous crimes are rarely ever convicted. The case of the 1994 Rwandan genocide displays this perfectly. The Rwandan genocide saw an estimated 800,000 people slaughtered within 100 days, most of whom were ethnic minority Tutsis. Ultimately, 93 people were convicted of crimes against humanity – including individuals from all aspects of society. Despite this, the idea that only 93 individuals were responsible for the destruction is suspicious, and the true number of those responsible for the acts in 1994 is likely to be much higher. This is an outcome applicable to multiple cases of genocide throughout the past century in which the perpetrators have rarely been held accountable for their crimes.

A lack of intervention from foreign powers is also a factor contributing to genocide. As mentioned above, little was done to prevent the Rwandan genocide. The case of Srebrenica also shows how the world did little to help those suffering during the peak of the Bosnian War. In July 1995, approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serbs, in the town of Srebrenica. Despite being designated as a UN safety zone for refugees of war, the Dutch peacekeepers could do little to prevent the massacre. When the Dutch commander reported to his superiors, he stated his unit was "no longer militarily operational".  As noted here, the UN failed to protect those at Srebrenica and that they were “abandoned to slaughter”. There are various explanations as to why the UN became a bystander in this situation, ranging from wanting to avoid direct confrontation to a failure to act on tips about the crisis in Srebrenica.

Another simple factor that leads to genocide is our refusal to learn about the past. By agreeing to the terms of the UN Convention on Genocide after the Second World War, we agreed that as a society we would not allow this type of violence and terror a place in our society. However, the Holocaust wasn’t the first act of genocide the world witnessed and it most certainly wasn’t the last. We stood by when thousands were killed around the globe; from Rwanda and Bosnia to current events in Myanmar and Sudan. We failed to spot the warning signs and call out destructive behaviour. We failed to intervene and potentially save thousands of lives across the globe. We swore to ourselves ‘never again’ after each of these tragic events, offering prayers when it was already far too late.

How can we hold China accountable?

With every minute that passes by, the situation for Uighurs in Xinjiang grows more dire. Since accusations first came to light, China has repeatedly denied any ill treatment of Uighurs, despite victims coming forward with their stories. Some countries have taken steps to denounce China’s actions. Most notably, 39 countries publicly criticised China for their actions in Xinjiang, in a statement read by German Ambassador to the UN, Christoph Heusgen. In retaliation however, a statement read by Cuban Ambassador to the UN Ana Silvia Rodriguez saw 45 countries defend China’s policies.

When it comes to countries taking a stance against China, very little can truly be done. Many of the countries defending China’s policies are either allies or depend on trade with China. If they do speak out, they could risk damaging ties with China which could be detrimental to their economy. With China being such a key global power, it is unlikely that the country would allow itself to be held accountable, especially given that it could instead deflect responsibility and criticize the treatment of people in other countries such as the US and even the UK. Only time can tell whether Uighurs receive justice for the despicable crimes committed against them.

Both the Biden administration and Trump administration condemned China for their policies. The current President of the United States stated that China’s treatment of Uighurs and other minority groups was genocide and that Joe Biden "stands against it in the strongest terms" during his campaign trail in the run-up to the 2020 US election.

On the most recent Holocaust Remembrance Day, prominent Jewish figures in the UK brought attention to what is unfolding in Xinjiang. In a recent letter addressed to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said that although the Jewish community is always hesitant to consider comparisons with the Holocaust, the situation in China is eerily similar to that of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. She said that the violations upon Uighurs’ human rights were "shaping up to be the most serious outrage of our time".

As Marie van der Zyl said, we can never allow a repeat of the Holocaust to ever happen again. The phrase ‘never again’ simply isn’t enough – especially as it loses its meaning every time a tragedy like this happens. We must quickly take action, or else the Uighurs will be yet another example of a minority group falling victim to the horror of genocide.