Do not forget the Uighur

In the wake of a global pandemic, it is easy for human rights abuses happening on the other side of the world to slip our minds. But for those affected, the abuse, the torture, the detention and killings, have not subsided. For one of the most persecuted groups, the Uighur Muslims, arbitrary detention and cultural erasure continues with the Xinjiang region’s campaign of genocide.

Detention

Since 2017, the Xinjiang region has seen the expansion or creation of 380 separate detention facilities, and most estimates suggest that at least 10% of all Uighur and other muslim populations in Xinjiang have been arbitrarily detained here. Experts who have been studying satellite images of the region in an exploration of human rights abuses believe the total number of detention centres may be much higher. In December 2019 the governor in Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, claimed that all “students” from the camps had “completed their studies” and “returned to society”. In January 2020 a newly built 60-acre detention camp opened near the city of Kashgar. The camp is entirely surrounded by a 14-metre-high wall accompanied by 10-metre watchtowers. It is estimated that this camp could detain 10,000 people. So, I ask you, does it sound like the detention of innocent “students” has ended? Or does it sound like the Xinjiang governor is continuing to tell lies? Contrary to Zakir’s statement, satellite evidence and victim testimony suggest a very different picture, one in which tens of thousands of detainees are being forcibly relocated to higher security centres.

Silence

This mass incarceration of Chinese citizens based solely on ethnicity and religion has created an atmosphere of terror and silence Xinjiang. The prospect of detention has created a culture in which it is impossible for the ethnic minority to dissent in any way, to resist any request made by someone seen as loyal to the party, or to give any reasonable consent. 

Birth prevention

Alongside the culture of fear, the arbitrary detention and forced disappearances are reports of forced sterilization and birth control. An investigation by the AP News Agency combined government statistics, state documents and interviews to find that women were regularly subjected to pregnancy checks, forced intrauterine devices, sterilization and abortion. In the Xinjiang region birth rates plummeted by nearly 24% in the last year alone, compared to the 4.2% national average. This undoubtedly meets the definition of genocide as outlined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; article II sections (d) states that “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” constitutes genocide when committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part an ethnic or religious group, such as the Uighur and other ethnic Muslims.

Cultural Erasure

Furthermore, the Chinese government has embarked on a deliberate and strategic mission to erase and rewrite the cultural heritage of the ethnic minorities of Xinjiang. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that around 16000 mosques in the Xinjiang region have been destroyed or damaged in line with government policy. A further 30% of sacred Islamic sites in the region have been demolished, with another 28% damaged or altered since 2017. This intentional attempt at cultural erasure adds to the hostile environment Uighur and other ethnic Muslims are faced with in Xinjiang today.

In the last two months the international community has finally increased calls on the UN and the ICC to probe and prosecute the situation in Xinjiang as a genocide. A task complicated by international diplomacy and structural inefficiencies, declaring the Chinese government’s actions as genocide would legally demand international action as per the Genocide Convention. However, the relative media silence over this ongoing atrocity is unacceptable. We must continue to expose the atrocities in China and pressure multinational organisations to take action. We must not forget the Uighurs.

School Attack in Cameroon

On the Verge of Civil War

At around midday on Saturday 24 October, gunmen opened fire on children at a local school in Kumba city in South West Cameroon. According to the BBC at least six children were killed, whilst Al Jazeera puts the fatalities at eight, all aged between twelve and fourteen years old. Alongside those killed, it is believed that around twelve more were seriously injured. 

African Union Commission Chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat said:

“there are no words of grief nor condemnation strong enough to articulate my full horror at the brutal attack.”

There has been no immediate claim for the violence, and it is currently unclear as to whether the attack was related to the ongoing tensions between Anglophone and Francophone regions within the country. 

Cameroon has been no stranger to violence over the last four years, as pressure between the Anglophone South West and North West regions, and the Francophone majority have escalated. Like many modern political conflicts, these troubles can be traced back to Cameroon’s colonial past. Originally invaded by Germany in the 1880s, Cameroon was divided into a French colony and a British colony following World War 1. Following 77 years of colonial rule, Cameroon won its independence as a united republic in 1960, but these colonial divisions continue to devise the country today. 

Since its independence, Anglophone regions of Cameroon have made claims of neglect from the Francophone majority, including president Paul Biya, who has been in office since 1982. This neglect is particularly evident in the discrepancies in economic investment in Anglophone and Francophone regions, with the former suffering. 

In 2016 Anglophone teachers and lawyers went on strike, leading months of demonstrations as some began to call for independence of the Anglophone Cameroon in a newly formed state, Ambazonia. This was met with a three month internet ban as the government dispelled protestors with excessive force, including accusations of arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention and sexual abuse. 

The government action was met with violent campaigns of revenge by Anglophone militants, and as conflict increases between militants and the army, Cameroon is on the verge of civil war. So far the violence in the country has left an estimated 3000 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.

El Salvador’s Prison Lockdown

Not even a single ray of sunlight will enter any of these cells

Osiris Luna, Deputy Justice Minister

Last month shocking pictures emerged of the inhumane conditions inside the prisons of El Salvador. These distressing images saw thousands of inmates stripped to their underwear and lined up in such close proximity that they were pressed up against one another. The measures were introduced following a four day period at the end of April in which there were 77 murders in El Salvador. The photos show how the prisoners huddled together as their cells were searched for anything linking them to the outbreak of violence. President Nayib Bukele claimed to have inside information that suggested the murders had been orchestrated by gang members within the prisons, and the new measures should prevent these gang members from orchestrating further violence in society. 

According to Human Rights Watch, authorities enforced an “absolute lockdown” on gang members, locking them in cells for 24 hours and confining gang leaders to solitary confinement for unspecified time periods. The Deputy Justice Minister, Osiris Luna, added that “not even a single ray of sunlight will enter any of these cells” as they enforced the measures that saw windows and doors bordered up as members of multiple different gangs were locked up in the same cells. 

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits the use of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment. The photos published by the Presidential Press Office are clear violations of this fundamental human right, regardless of the individual’s involvement in gang activities. 

As if not horrific enough on their own, these conditions have come amidst the global Coronavirus pandemic, in which public health guidance has tirelessly stated the importance of social distancing to prevent the spread. Whilst some wore face masks, most of the prisoners had little to no protection against the possible spread fo COVID-19. With prisons already presenting a higher risk of the infection spreading than the wider society, the government’s new prison lockdown measures have made El Salvador’s prisoners and prison staff extremely vulnerable. 

One of the most densely populated countries in South America, El Salvador has one of the highest rates of homicides in the world. This is largely down to the extensive gang activity that controls and terrorises vast amounts of the country. The gang culture erupted following a devastating civil war in the 1980s that was sparked by gross inequality that separated the majority from a small and wealthy minority, and left roughly 70,000 dead. The civil war exposed many young Salvadorian children to horrific violence. In an attempt to escape the brutality many fled to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. Here, they came together in ethnic solidarity to protect themselves against LA’s existing gangs. When the US introduced restrictive immigration laws in 1992, many of those who had fled El Salvador during the war were forced to return, bringing their gang culture to an already struggling state. 

It is difficult to see a way out of this gang culture, which is so ingrained within El Salvador’s society, but it is unlikely that government violations of human rights such as those experienced in prisons are the answer.

To Be Gay in Chechnya

The persecution of the LGBT community is Chechnya is not news. For years rampant homophobia has forced them into hiding, but recent anti-gay purges have created a massive escalation in fear. 

In February 2017 an officially sanctioned purge was launched, with police and security officials detaining dozens of gay and bisexual men, humiliating, starving and torturing them. The government carried out forcible disappearances on a number of the men, whilst others were returned to their families barely alive. Once released, the government informed their relatives of their sexuality before encouraging them to carry out honour killings. Though the homophobia was no surprise, the systemised nature of the 2017 purge was unprecedented. 

Following international calls for a thorough investigation, in 2018 Russia’s justice minister released a statement saying that their investigation had shown no sign of right’s violations and that they were unable to find any representatives of the LGBT community to assist in the investigation. Whilst there is no doubt that the investigation carried out was less than thorough, I also find it very unsurprising that a persecuted population did not come forward and admit to possessing the persecuted characteristic when asked by their government. Seems pretty obvious to me. 

Whilst the detentions appeared to stop in mid-2017, 2019 saw a new wave of persecution. This new wave saw police demanding large sums of money for the release of prisoners, whilst authorities confiscated and destroyed the men’s passports, ensuring that even on release, they were unable to leave Chechnya.

In March 2019, 30 countries supported a joint statement at the UNHRC expressing their deep concern about LGBT persecution in Chechnya and again called for a thorough investigation. But what good is condemning the Chechen authorities for detaining and torturing a group of people that they claim don’t exist? For years the Chechen government has denied claims of the purge against the LGBT community by claiming that gay people simply don’t exist in Chechnya. 

For aggressive homophobia to be so entrenched in a twenty-first-century government is absolutely horrifying, but the complete lack of concrete action by the international community is just as damaging to human rights conditions more generally. By passively standing by and letting such abuses happen essentially ensures that they will continue to happen in the future.

Reversing Roe

Abortion rights have long been one of the most controversial human rights. In a world where women are gaining more and more control over their lives and their bodies, political moves such as Georgia, USA’s “heartbeat bill” spark civil dispute and rightly strike fear into the hearts of young women everywhere. 

Abortion in the United States became legal in 1973 in the famous case of Roe v Wade and is now considered a Constitutional right. So why 46 years later are States like Georgia beginning the process of reversing Roe? And why should we be fighting to stop them? 

The heartbeat bill makes it illegal for a doctor to provide an abortion once a “heartbeat” has been detected. This usually happens at around 6 weeks. Plot twist – this “heartbeat” is not a heartbeat, but the first signs of cardiac activity. At 6 weeks a fetus has not yet formed a heart. 

Most women do not find out that they are pregnant until the sixth week or later. In a state where abortion laws are already stringent and maternal death rates are amongst the highest in the country this bill would make abortions inaccessible for so many women. Luckily this assault on women’s reproductive rights has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge and will be reconsidered in October this year. 

Georgia’s attack on women’s right not scary enough for you? You’re in luck! Georgia was only 1 of 16 US states that proposed heartbeat bills in 2019. Terrifying. 

One of the most frustrating things about anti-abortion laws like this one is the clear disregard for the dangerous situation that it’s putting women in. Criminalising abortion doesn’t stop abortions. You aren’t saving the lives of the babies you are claiming to protect, you are just putting the lives of their mothers at risk. Women facing an unwanted pregnancy will find a way to terminate. Whether they do this themselves using medieval methods, find an illegal, unsafe back-alley doctor to perform the abortion for them, or if they are fortunate enough to be able to afford to travel somewhere that respects women’s rights. They will abort. 

We have been fighting for women’s rights since the concept of human rights was born. We have come an incredible distance in that time but the fight is not over. The struggle continues.