By David Tobin
After 18 months of deliberations and three hearings of evidence from witnesses and experts – including anthropologists, political scientists and international lawyers – the London-based Uyghur Tribunal has ruled that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide, by coercive birth control.
The Uyghur Tribunal is an independent people’s tribunal. Its verdict is not legally binding. The tribunal was chaired by the British lawyer, Geoffrey Nice, known for his role as prosecutor in the trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević for crimes against humanity.
The tribunal was established in June 2020, following the request of Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy group. Its purpose was to investigate crimes against humanity and genocide under international law, allegedly perpetrated by the Chinese state against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic-speaking Muslims in north-western China.
In its investigations, the tribunal publicly requested evidence from witnesses, experts and governments. It did not judge Chinese values, citizens of the PRC, authoritarian governance, or Communist ideology.
Uyghurs turned to this civic forum because international courts and the Chinese legal system have no mechanisms by which Uyghur, or any minority peoples’ claims, can be heard without consent of the accused party – in this case, the PRC.
No government was willing to share evidence and the tribunal’s specific requests to the US, UK, and Japan were declined. This reflects how many governments’ policy decisions include trade-offs between economic interests and upholding human rights as established under international law.
The tribunal heard extensive witness accounts of children and families being routinely separated, women being subjected to coercive birth controls, the sexual torture of men and women and people being forced to take unknown medications.
One witness, Sweden-based data analyst Nyrola Elimä testified to her family’s arbitrary detainment. No official explanation was given for detainment of her cousin, Mahire Yaqup, who, Nyrola said, looked “like skin stretched on a skeleton” when they last spoke three years ago. Echoing Uyghurs’ fears amid widespread family separations, Nyrola explained the risks she was taking by speaking publicly: “The Chinese government can take my parents”, she said, “I am scared. I can feel the threat closer and closer”.
Further witnesses described visceral experiences when questioned how they knew cellmates in the detainment camps were taken by guards to be gang raped after dark. Qelbinur Sidik could “hear the screams”. Zumret Dawut could “see the guilt”, and “sense when they were taken and wouldn’t come back”. Omir Bekali stopped to think, “are they human?”, while hanging upside down and tortured with thin wire.
The tribunal’s legal counsel verified case details using government documents and legal papers. They had to ask necessary but disconcerting questions to establish the facts.
China symbolically sanctioned several academics and vocal politicians ahead of the tribunal’s first hearing. Nevertheless, the UK’s leading experts on the region (and myself) presented a co-authored report to the tribunal, entitled State Violence in Xinjiang.
Our findings show that since 2017, the Chinese state has implemented planned, systematic, and co-ordinated practices of forced labour, child-separation, coercive birth controls, sexual violence, and repression of religion and culture. Together, these practices prevent intergenerational transmission of Uyghur identities. The key findings correspond with those of NGOs, international thinktanks, and legal bodies.
Chinese president Xi Jinping’s assimilation policies of “fusion” and “Sinicisation” are intended to solve what the party-state terms China’s “ethnic problem”. They have interned over one million Turkic-speaking Muslims in “re-education” camps, where they experience forced labour and sexual violence and children are separated from their parents. Outside the camps, Uyghurs live under hi-tech surveillance and endure psychological trauma.
Social anthropologists and political scientists have analysed how Uyghur history narratives are prosecuted by the Chinese state as terrorism. Their research has shown how Uyghur language was gradually removed from public life and religion had to be practised in private. Uyghur speech has been conflated with armed resistance and Uyghur identities treated as security threats. Scholars concluded these policies created mass discontent and exacerbated cycles of Han-Uyghur violence.
To date, there has been limited open debate on how the genocide term applies to Uyghur experiences. The human rights scholar Rafael Lemkin originally defined genocide in 1944 as “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves”.
As Nice made duly clear in the tribunal’s detailed judgement of crimes against humanity and genocide, the latter ruling was in respect of the UN Genocide Convention article 2D “imposing measures to prevent births within the group”. He noted that genocide in law remains broader than its misconception as mass killings.
Research interviews in Xinjiang are conducted anonymously to protect people’s safety. But since the emergence of the internment camps, Uyghurs have increasingly spoken publicly in desperation and in hope of seeing family. As Nyrola Elimä explained to me in an interview: “While the world debates a word, we are dying”.
In his verdict, Nice reminded observers that universal rights are matched by personal duties. “It can never be right to look away,” he said. The judgement will vindicate Uyghurs’ and Kazakhs’ long-term experiences of state violence.
In response, a UN spokesperson noted “similarly identified patterns” and that the tribunal has “brought to light more information that is deeply disturbing”. The question now is, who will act?
David Tobin is a Lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, U.K.
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