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Why Won’t the World Call the Uyghur Persecution Genocide?

The West is reluctant to fully condemn the actions of the Chinese Communist Party because of the sanctions that will be invoked as a retaliatory response from Beijing, says CJ Werleman

China’s President Xi Jinping. Photo: PA Images

Why Won’t the World Call the Uyghur Persecution Genocide?

The West is reluctant to fully condemn the actions of the Chinese Communist Party because of the sanctions that will be invoked as a retaliatory response from Beijing, says CJ Werleman

It turns out that the world’s most difficult word to say is ‘genocide’.

When details of China’s crackdown on its ethnic Uyghur minority first emerged in 2016, it sparked grave concern among human rights activists and attracted the interest of international news media outlets, before later becoming a geopolitical hot potato later, essentially dividing the world into two competing camps.

Whereas 39 Western democracies have condemned China for its human rights abuses – including the illegal detainment of three to six million Uyghur Muslims – 37 predominately Middle Eastern and African autocracies have jumped to Beijing’s defence, signing a joint letter parroting Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda in support of their Asian trading partner’s need for “counter-terrorism and deradicalisation”.

With growing global concerns towards China’s increasingly aggressive military posturing in the South China Sea and Himalayas – along with accusations it covered up the COVID-19 outbreak, allowing it to spread internationally – Western democracies are now figuring out how far they are willing to go in their condemnation of what is now measurably the largest-scale persecution of a religious minority since the Holocaust, knowing that censures, sanctions and boycotts will invoke a retaliatory response from Beijing.

For instance, when the Australian Government called for an independent investigation into the origins of the Coronavirus outbreak, while condemning China for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the CCP responded by slapping billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions and tariffs on Australian exports, including beef and wine, while threatening to reduce its procurement of raw minerals.

This reactionary and disproportionate response has made governments throughout Europe, Asia and America hesitant to call China’s persecution of the Uyghurs genocide. 

When US President Joe Biden, for instance, said that China will face consequences for its atrocities in Xinjiang, he stumbled somewhat and appeared to excuse the CCP’s behaviour by saying “culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow”. 

Notably, he did not utter the word “genocide”, although his newly confirmed Secretary of State – Anthony Blinken – said that the current administration will make an official determination pending a review, despite his predecessor Mike Pompeo declaring on President Donald Trump’s final full day in office that China’s crimes against the Uyghur minority constitute a genocide.

The Meaning of Genocide

On Tuesday, Canada became only the second country to describe China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang a genocide, with the Canadian Parliament voting 266 to 0 in favour of a non-binding motion.

Notably, however, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and nearly his entire cabinet abstained, thus exemplifying the fear and trepidation governments have towards attracting Beijing’s ire.

“Canadian Government has placed itself on the right side of history for standing with oppressed Uyghurs,” Abdugheni Sabit, whose five siblings are missing in Xinjiang, told me. “I hope other counties now follow Canada’s lead.”

When Trudeau was asked whether he would be voting in favour of the motion to declare China’s actions a genocide, however, he twice refused to answer the question – deflecting only to boilerplate diplomatic talking points, saying: “We are reflecting very carefully on the best path forward for Canada and we certainly recognise that moving forward multilaterally will be the best way to demonstrate the solidarity of Western democracies and the values shared by billions of people around the world.”

The UK Government, on the other hand, has not only stopped well short of using the word genocide to describe China’s human rights violations against the Uyghur – which it has described as as “horrific barbarism” – but has also been accused by human rights groups of “spitting in the faces” of survivors of Chinese detention camps because of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fending off a parliamentary rebellion over genocide determination.

A rebel group of MPs within the Conservative Party had backed an amendment giving the courts a role in determining whether China, or any other country, is committing genocide, which would then grant Parliament the power to ban or cancel any trade deal made with any country found to have done so. However, the Johnson Government warned that this amendment would make it “impossible for the Government to ignore” the High Court and “embroil the courts in the formulation of trade policy and conduct of international relations”. The amendment was not passed.

Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, told Politico that he’d “never seen a government so afraid to do the right thing”.

It is thus no coincidence that pro-free trade and neoliberal magazines and think tanks are now coming to the rescue of governments that have found themselves tongue-tied and constrained by the word genocide in their respective relations with China.

On 13 February, The Economist published an article titled “‘Genocide’ is the Wrong Word for the Horrors of Xinjiang”, in which the author asked whether the US Government describing China’s human rights violations a genocide was accurate.

“By the common understanding of the word, it is not,” said the magazine’s editorial team. “Just as ‘homicide’ means killing a person and ‘suicide’ means killing yourself, ‘genocide’ means killing a people. China’s persecution of the Uyghurs is horrific: it has locked up perhaps one million of them in prison camps, which it naturally mislabels ‘vocational centres’. It has forcibly sterilised Uyghur women. But it is not slaughtering them.”

Here, The Economist demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of what actions define genocide and the duties for remedying it under the Genocide Convention.

In an open letter to The Economist, a group of lawyers and genocide scholars with the Coalition for Genocide Response called out the magazine for “making several claims that are erroneous” and need addressing.

“Where the elements of the legal definition are met (as per Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention)), the crimes should be labelled exactly for what they are,” they said, adding that China’s actions against the Uyghur people are “supported by evidence of the specific intent to destroy this ethno-religious group”.

They also noted that ‘genocide’ as defined by international law does not necessarily entail the immediate destruction of the group by ‘mass slaughter’, but destruction of the group (in whole or in part) must be the intended result, pointing to evidence demonstrating China’s persecution of the Uyghur people meets the terms of this legal test.

“In order to ‘punish genocide’, states must introduce domestic laws to give effect to the Genocide Convention, including, criminalising genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempt to commit genocide, and complicity in genocide,” they said. “This is where meeting the precise elements of the crime are crucial as otherwise the charges would not stand.”

The international community solemnly swore to never allow such atrocities to occur on its watch again when details of the Holocaust emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War. But, without first defining genocide, there is no action against genocide and, without action, the promise of ‘never again’ will produce genocide ‘again and again’.

It failed in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and Myanmar. It cannot afford to fail again for the Uyghur people.

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