Xinjiang is the largest region of China and is made up of the Uighurs, a Turkish ethnic group who practices the Muslim faith. Over a million and a half Uighurs have been sent to internment camps that aim to indoctrinate the detainees with propaganda about the Communist Party and eradicate their Muslim and Uighur identities. There have also been reports of various population control mechanisms, such as forced sterilization and abortion. In addition, widespread surveillance disproportionately targets Uighurs and other minorities. This mass repression has taken place for over a decade but has severely accelerated since 2017, constituting what is probably the largest incarceration of an ethnoreligious minority since the Holocaust, according to research Adrian Zenz.
According to Hu Lianhe, a Communist Party official, this ‘re-education’ campaign only targets petty criminals that are assigned to “vocational education facilities for rehabilitation and reintegration” . Yet, testimonies from individuals who have worked or been detained in the camps as well as leaked information report cases of human rights violations. Government authorities claim that the Xinjiang campaign embodies an effort against anti-terrorism, yet few cases of terrorism have been recorded in the past decades, and at most a handful of members of the Uighurs’ East Turkestan Islamic Movement are proven terrorists.
The international response
According to the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, the Chinese government has violated at least six human rights treaties in their persecution of the Uighurs. In the face of blatant human rights violations taking place, how has the international community reacted? So far, 39 countries have publicly condemned the Chinese government. These include the United States, Canada, France, the UK and others. In 2016, the US led the issuing of a joint statement signed by 12 other countries, warning of China’s deteriorating human rights record. Other joint statements were issued in 2019, urging the government to “uphold its national laws and international obligations and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Nevertheless, these statements have shown to have little-to-no effect on the government’s actions.
Additionally, China has received the support of more than 50 countries, including Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. A group of 45 nations have signed a joint letter, praising China’s commitment to human rights in an attempt to rebuke claims of human rights violations. China’s increasing influence within the United Nations can be explained by the growing number of countries benefiting from billions of dollars in Chinese investments through its infrastructure program, the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI). China has given healthy loans to economies with bad credit ratings, such as Pakistan. It appears countries doing business in China are reluctant to speak up due to a fear of backlash on their economic partnerships.
The benefits (and shortfalls) of economic sanctions
Only one member of the UN, the United States, has imposed ‘strategic’ economic sanctions. In July, 2020, the Trump administration leveled sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary organization that plays a central role in the development of the Xinjiang region, and two associated Chinese officials. As such, the parties concerned are blocked from accessing US property and the US financial system, and are banned from engaging in economic transactions with American companies. On July 20, 11 new Chinese entities that were supplying major American brands like Apple and Ralph Lauren were added to the list, restricting them from purchasing American goods. However, these sanctions will likely have little-to-no impact on the officials targeted, and it is not yet clear how trade and international commerce will be affected. While targeted economic sanctions do send a strong message, the Chinese government is unlikely to implement change without stricter sanctions imposed by other countries. Yet, no other government has taken the initiative to do so. For instance, while British companies face fines if they are found to be using products in their supply chain made in Xinjiang, the British government has failed to impose widely expected sanctions on Chinese officials.
The lack of strict and widespread economic sanctions towards the Chinese government, coupled with the refusal of certain countries to condemn it, suggests that at the heart of inaction lies economic interests that seem to trump concerns for human rights. Today, China is an economic force to be reckoned with in the global economy and engages intensively in trade, investments and commerce with many countries around the world. As such, world leaders may be reluctant to impose sanctions because of the trade ties they hold with China, fearing repercussions on their own domestic economy.
In comparison, in response to the Rohingya genocide that started in 2016, the US, the European Union and Canada were quick to level sanctions on Myanmar, a country with whom they do not hold important economic ties.
However, the Myanmar case also points to the fact that sanctions have proven to be ineffective and counterproductive at times. Indeed, perhaps in an effort to replace lost foreign investment from the West, Myanmar has started turning more frequently to countries like China for investment. The government signed an agreement with Chinese investment firms, and has pledged to contribute to the BRI.
In the case of China, who is deeply embedded in the world economy, a multilateral approach should be taken in order to impose strict and tough sanctions. Such measures would pull US and allied business out of China, and could potentially force Beijing to adjust its policies targeting Uighurs. Yet, as the case of Myanmar highlights, economic sanctions may not bring about effective results, especially when applied to an authoritarian regime such as China that has extensive economic ties to countries that turn a blind eye to its human rights violations.
International law prospects
Another solution that could pressure the Beijing government to abandon its Xinjiang campaign would be to put it under the scrutiny of the Convention For The Prevention And Punishment Of The Crime Of Genocide. According to a formal legal opinion newly published in the UK, exhaustive evidence has been piling up for years now, building a credible case that the Chinese government is carrying out the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. There is also evidence of state-mandated behaviour showing an intent to eradicate the Uighur minority and its Muslim culture.
However, on December 14, 2020, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to the ICC confirmed that it could not take the case of the Uighurs any further. In July, 2020, the East Turkistan Government in Exile (ETGE) and the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM) had submitted a demand to the OTP for an investigation to be opened against senior Chinese leaders for the crime of genocide allegedly committed against the Uighur minority. Since China did not ratify the Rome Statute, the ICC does not have territorial jurisdiction over the crimes. Nevertheless, the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity constitute norms of customary international law. This entails that universal jurisdiction applies to these crimes, which means that any domestic court in the world could bring the Chinese government to trial. However, this option is highly unlikely to happen due to obvious political reasons; no country nor domestic court would risk facing the wrath of China by challenging the Chinese State in court. Unsurprisingly, there have been no attempts hithero to apply the customary law of the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity to this case.
While world leaders that have publicly deplored Beijing’s campaign in Xinjiang do not hesitate to call it a genocide, no steps have been taken to convert mere statements into action. Besides, when looking at the international community’s past record with genocide, the prospects of seeing effective action to prevent further degradation of the situation are not promising. Indeed, the Rwanda genocide was met with silence and inaction from the UN Security Council. For the time being, as the world struggles in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Uighurs’ plea for help continue to fall on deaf ears.
Edited by Helia Mokbher
Melanie Baume is currently a fourth year undergraduate student at McGill University where she is pursuing a major in International Development Studies and an honours degree in Political Science, as well as a minor in Social Entrepreneurship. As a Staff Writer for Catalyst McGill, she is highly interested in the refugee crisis, sustainable development, education and world politics.