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.

The China Cables

Although I have already written a post on the Uighurs in Xinjiang, given recent events I feel obliged to dedicate another post to explain the unfolding situation. Just over a week ago a series of official Chinese documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, detailing the processes behind the Xinjiang detention camps. The documents have been labelled the China Cables.  

The China Cables were discussed in a new BBC Panorama programme “How to Brainwash a Million People”. Accompanied by interviews with ex-detainees, the families of detainees and for the first time, an ex-teacher from the camps, the thirty-minute programme provides a succinct and emotional account of the story of Xinjiang. 

What do the documents tell us?  The documents include a telegram, which acts as an operations manual for running the mass detention camps, which was accompanied by the signature of Zhu Hailun, then deputy secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party and the region’s top security official. This is the most incriminating of the documents released, and was described in the Panorama programme as a “clear and brutal guide”. Some of the most alarming text included the emphasis on removing any uncensored contact with the outside world, for example, section 2 of the telegram has been translated as “prevent escapes” and includes instructions for if students are granted permission to leave the camp, stating “they must have someone specially accompany, monitor and control them”, whilst section 3 details how students “may not contact the outside world apart from during prescribed activities”. It continues in section 14 instructing an “increase in discipline and punishment”, and finishes with section 25 “strict secrecy”. 

First-hand accounts. The Panorama programme spoke to one man who explained how he had been taken from his house in the night and transported to a camp, where he was stripped naked and put in chains. He notes how the guards didn’t see the detainees as human and how he was unsure whether or not he would make it out alive. Another ex-detainee described the physical abuse she experienced inside a camp. She explained how when they went to the toilet they were limited to two minutes and were constantly being told to hurry up by guards, if they took too long they risked being hit on the back of the head with an electric baton. She continued “my only dream was to die”. 

China’s response. Despite all of the evidence from the leaked documents, to satellite photos, to victim testaments, the Chinese government has maintained its denial of the whole thing. China’s UK ambassador dismissed the documents as fake news, and in a press conference about the Xinjiang camps, said that there was no impact on their freedom of religion or beliefs at all. This utter denialism employed by China either assumes that the rest of the world is stupid or simply doesn’t care. 

In my opinion, this is clearly a genocide, and whilst key figures have described the situation as “the largest internment of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust”, there are potential issues that arise when trying to define the situation as genocide using the UN Genocide Convention. The Convention entails the destruction of an ethnic group, however, the “brainwashing” methods that are being used, the forcible learning of language and denouncement of religion, fall short of the Convention’s definition. The closest the Convention gets to the Xinjiang camps is “causing serious bodily or mental harm” – which could definitely be argued in the case of the Uighurs, but would not be concrete. This, therefore, represents not only a gross abuse of power by the Chinese State, systematic destruction of an innocent population, and a clear tactic of denial, but also a failing in the international system that should be protecting us from such abuse.

The Gambia: A Glimmer of Hope for the Rohingya

I have been following the case of the Rohingya genocide for a couple of years now and this latest development is the most promising sign of justice that I have come across, and the first judicial scrutiny that the country will face. 

The most recent period of attacks on the Rohingya started in 2017 and resulted in estimates of 700,000 to 1 million refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, predominantly Bangladesh. As a member of the 1948 Genocide Convention, Myanmar had agreed that genocide is a crime under international law and undertook that they would take steps to both prevent and punish it. 

Under usual proceedings, war crimes such as genocide would be investigated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and whilst they did begin a preliminary investigation into the genocide in 2018, Myanmar has not signed up to the ICC, complicating any investigation or rulings. For this reason, the Gambia has filed a lawsuit against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s principal judicial organ. 

The Gambia, a predominantly Muslim country, has the support of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and a team of international lawyers in bringing proceedings to the ICJ. The effort is being led by The Gambia’s attorney general and minister of justice, Abubacarr M Tambadou, and has asked the court to order an injunction to stop the atrocities against the Rohingya people. Tamabadou is no stranger to genocide proceedings and has previously worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda investigating their 1994 genocide. 

The move from The Gambia has come as a surprise to some, as the country is itself emerging from decades of brutal dictatorship, however, the action is a welcome development, and the director at No Peace Without Justice has encouraged other members of the Genocide Convention to follow The Gambia’s lead and offer their unwavering support.  Legal action addressing individual criminal responsibility has also begun at the international level, with the UN-backed fact-finding mission calling for the prosecution of Myanmar’s military leaders. 

The document submitted to the ICJ is largely unsurprising, calling on the court to declare Myanmar’s actions as genocide in breach of the Genocide Convention and to ensure appropriate punishment for perpetrators. One thing that does stand out, however, is the call for full Rohingya citizenship in Myanmar to be re-established and respected. This is significant as in the lead up to the latest violence the Myanmar government took a number of steps to undermine and remove Rohingya citizenship, deliberately not naming them among 135 recognised ethnicities in Myanmar. 

There is a lot more that the international community could and should be doing, and the fact that it has taken more than two years for judicial action to come about is completely unacceptable. However, the move by The Gambia is an undoubted leap in the right direction, and the efforts by Tambadou deserve international recognition.

Just another genocide

Sheets of incoming bullets smacked the thatch homes “like raindrops”

“At that moment I felt like I was already dead,” Rajuma recalls. “I think I’m only alive to tell the world about what I saw.”

I first encountered the severity of the situation of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar whilst representing the country during a Model UN module in the second year of my undergraduate degree. I was shocked to read about the brutality of the military, but as an advocate for the country I tried to focus on almost any other aspect of the political landscape. As the module came to an end, the News began to pick up on the deteriorating conditions, increased violence and lack of government action to protect the Rohingya population. I was relieved to see the public outrage at the genocide, and for the first time became hopeful that perhaps an end to the violence was in sight. 

If you rely solely on Western News sources then you might still believe this. 

Oh how wrong you would be. 

As I began my third year I did more and more research on how the situation was developing, and all the hope I had for peace in the country faded away nearly as quickly as the news coverage. The deeper I looked, the more horrified I was. The calculated and blatant segregation and villainization of the Rohingya people parallels that of the Jews in Nazi Germany – the declaration of 135 “official” ethnicities excluding the Rohingya stripping them of legal citizenship, the dehumanising comparison of Rohingya to wild animals and the forced movement of Rohingya into concentration camps are all obvious signs of an impending genocide. And yet no international action was taken. No international action is being taken.

At the conclusion of WW2, the United Nations was established in order to prevent the recurrence of such violence, and Germany was severely reprimanded for its actions – yet here we are more than seventy years and an abundance of academic research later, facing a genocide equally as brutal, and apparently we have failed to learn anything from the past. 

The brutality persists. 

Recent estimates of Rohingya refugee numbers range from 650,000 to over 1 million. The conditions they are living are in unimaginable for most all of us that have never been to a refugee camp. But the alternative? Living in constant fear, watching your family members be repeatedly raped and murdered, being burnt alive. Just writing those things makes me uncomfortable, imagine living them.

I do not understand why the political leaders of the world are turning a blind eye. I do not understand why the media is not continuing to report. I do not understand this ignorance. We knew what was about to unfold in Rwanda and we sat back and watched it happen. So much damage has already been done in Myanmar, so many lives taken or destroyed. But there is still time to prevent further destruction. We need the UN to live up to its purpose and intervene. We need to send a message to every single person in this World that we won’t tolerate such discriminatory violence, we need to send a message to the Rohingya that we have not forgotten them. We need to act now. 

If you are at all interested in learning more about the Rohingya crisis I will add some links below that you can look at (warning: the first video is particularly upsetting).

https://www.aljazeera.com/Search/?q=Rohingya

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/cm8m1lj50l9t/rohingya