Thinking the Uyghur Genocide through the UN Genocide Convention

Mamtimin Ala

Dec. 10, 2018




The desperate, timeless and rallying outcry of Never Again is still as relevant today as it was in 1948, when the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was created with the purpose of preventing further genocides after WWII. On its 70th birthday, the world has borne witness to several genocides, to name a few, Cambodia and Rwanda in the past Century, and Burma in the 21st Century. This foundational piece of international law has, to a large extent, been unsuccessful in preventing the genocidal activities around the world historically. Further to this, it has failed to save the Uyghur nation from the current cultural genocide perpetrated by China, despite China remaining a signatory to the Convention.


The world has always celebrated this very historic Convention, not because it is an international legal authority to prevent genocide but because it is an ideal of humanitarianism and enlightenment, towards which humanity orients. Idealistically, the existence of such a Convention prevents us from plunging into despair over human nature, and aspires us to strive towards a pervasive social cohesion and the goal of universal justice. The Convention, therefore, only serves as an idealistic framework to perpetuate our humanitarian principles, however aspiring and unrealistic they may sound.


The Uyghur genocide, being perpetrated by the Chinese authorities under the command of Xi Jinping, is justified through the pretext of a “fight against terrorism, religious extremism and separatism”. The unfortunate success of this genocide so far emphasises the failure of the UN to implement the Convention. It is proven once again that this Convention is more of a universally guiding principle than a legally binding law. Hence, its universal applicability is limited in many ways. In August 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reported that more than a million Uyghur people are imprisoned by the Chinese government in extrajudicial manner into what is euphemistically called “vocational training centres” which, in reality, resembles concentration camps.


Within this context, the Uyghurs detained inside the concentration camps are forced to denounce their cultural identity and religious beliefs, going through a horrific process of indoctrination enforced by coercion and torture. Outside the camps, the Chinese authorities have imposed a surveillance state, forcing the Uyghurs to uncompromisingly lose their identity and to thoroughly censor their mind in order to ensure they are Sinisized to Han Chinese culture. The children of the Uyghurs detained are separated from their parents and they have become orphans with no opportunity of family reunification with their parents. More alarmingly, as Reuters has recently indicated the camps are increasing rapidly in size and in number. There is no end in sight to China’s ambition to assimilate Uyghurs into Chinese identity at all costs. As such, the whole Uyghur society is slowly but surely collapsing and the Uyghurs both inside and outside of China are suffering from intergenerational trauma that will take decades for them to heal from.


At the latest United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in November 2018, where the human rights records of China were reviewed, only 15 Western countries out of 193 UN Member States raised concerns at varying degrees over the situation of Uyghurs in the camps. In defence of its human rights records, the Chinese delegation dismissed all the concerns, stating that the objective of the establishment of the “vocational training centres” is “part of counter-terrorism initiative” and help “free the minds of people affected by extremism.” China has once again escaped from international condemnation by using its unchallengeable power on the international stage in general and through its unassailable influence at the UN in particular.


Not only the UN, but also other governments internationally have not openly confronted or condemned China’s genocide of the Uyghurs. None of the Muslim countries have expressed any concern over the plight of the Uyghurs who are being cruelly punished for being Muslims in the name of anti-terrorism in China which sees Islam as a contagious virus to be cured. None of the Nobel Peace Prize winners have ever issued a statement to criticise China over its mass mistreatment of the Uyghurs, including the Dalai Lama who claims that the Tibetans are victims of systematic atrocities perpetuated by Chinese authorities. The list goes on. What is crucial here is this: for the Uyghurs who are left alone and abandoned to the merciless hands of the Chinese government, there is no difference between the perpetrator of the genocide and the silent witness to it, as the result is the same in the end.


The Uyghur genocide puts the validity of the UN under scrutiny. If the UN is a global organization aiming to facilitate and overcome common challenges faced by humanity in the spirit of shared responsibilities, however is unable to prevent or intervene in crimes against humanity, then the question remains: How could it continue to represent the interest of humanity? Is it due to its structural deficiency or to its inherent incapacity to diffuse the manipulations of countries who abuse its principles? Or is any Member State, for example, China, so overpowering that it hinders its moral, if not legal, obligation to prevent genocide? Or is it actually a mosaic organisation that only embodies the endless conflicts of values and interests of the Member States that may never be able to be resolved? If so, what is its raison d’être?


Further to this, the Uyghur genocide highlights the philosophical discussion of the nature of human rights – are human rights based on the principles of the natural-law perspective or on political ideologies? It is common knowledge that human rights are fundamental and inherent moral rights that people as rational agents are endowed with in pursuit of happiness by virtue of their humanity. A genocide is a systematic violation of the rights of a group, a people or a race defined by its unique ethnicity, culture and religious identity. Stated otherwise, it is a symptom of dehumanization that violently negates the natural rights of people intrinsically legitimised by the principles of humanitarianism.


The Uyghur genocide tells us that prevention or intervention tends to be more politically imbued than natural-law oriented. The silence of the majority of the Member States of the UN over this crisis testifies the fact that they are avoiding an economically and politically costly confrontation with China at the expense of neglecting the violations of the human rights of the Uyghurs. It results from the calculation of economic and political losses, not from the moral consideration of the losses of millions of innocent lives. Pragmatically, nobody denies the importance of an economic and political calculation in an intervention to prevent genocide. However, equally important is the moral consideration that is a guiding principle to assess, prevent and intervene a genocide. If there are no consequences for the perpetration of genocide, however there are economic benefits to the perpetrator, this will only set a precedent and encourage further genocide. If the political view is emphasised one-sidedly, then the prevention of a genocide becomes optional and conditional, operating in the economics of mutual benefits. If this argument is pushed to its limit, then genocide cannot be viewed as an inherently criminal act – “a crime without a name” as Churchill would say. It would be justified circumstantially, conditionally and politically. It is the natural-view law that makes the prevention and punishment of a genocide a moral imperative that applies to everybody unconditionally and universally.


Hence, the failure of the UN to intervene and prevent genocide lies in a way, in which it is conditioned by the political interests of the Member States, which makes it extremely difficult for it to enforce action against genocide in a timely manner. This failure commands thorough deep structural reform of the UN in the future in order to validate its existence, or at the very least, if it strives to be more efficient and effective. If the UN chooses to be complacent with the role of being a guardian of an ideal principle, then it will never be resolved to practically and genuinely take serious action to prevent a genocide. By doing so, it betrays the principles of humanity, upon which it is founded. It also betrays the hope of the world community that it represents.

Uyghur Times

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