Mass atrocities in Xinjiang: specificities and international response

June 08, 2021 Miscellaneous 0

Interview by Laura Pistarini Teixeira Nunes, ICRP | The international community can no longer deny the extensive human rights abuses towards Turkic Muslims (more specifically, Uyghurs) taking place in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China’s largest and most western region. Both outside and within the internment camps, they struggle with severe violations to freedom of movement and expression; collective, indefinite, extra-judicial, detention; enforced disappearances, deportation and forcible transfer; various forms of torture and degrading treatment (which usually entail direct and purposeful infractions to Uyghur and Muslim traditions); family separation; systematic rape and reproductive violence (including coerced birth prevention targeted to bring down birth rates); arbitrary killings; brainwashing; constant, mass, surveillance (including genomic surveillance); forced labor; cultural erasure; and, possibly, organ harvesting. It has also become clear by now that those policies aim to eliminate Uyghurs, as the specific ways in which the members of this population are massively subtracted from society demonstrate that the Chinese government aims to “break their spirits” by systemically outlawing their way of life, inflicting them the worst kinds of violence and atrocities, and making them live in constant fear.

Nonetheless, the international community is still in denial over the fact that such human rights violations those violations amount to genocide according to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (in fact, as of now, only the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands have officially recognized it). This is where the latest Newsline Institute for Strategy and Policy report comes in. Their ground-breaking argumentation is clear: taken integrally, the combination of Chinese counterterrorist and ethnic policies intends to gradually destroy Uyghurs as a distinct ethnic group. In order to make this point, the Institute thoroughly demonstrates how China is breaching all five points of the second article of the previously quoted Convention, which unveils as follows:

“Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births.”

Although the idea sustained by the Convention could not be more evident, the international community fails to understand one, fairly simple, point: genocidal acts do not necessarily entail mass murders. The killing of individuals and the measures imposed to prevent the births of specific group members are only two out of the five points enlisted by the document. And yet they are, almost always, the only pieces of evidence that raise genocide red flags. Understandably, western countries still live with the deep scars of the Shoah, which brought about the extermination of millions of people on European soil. The international community must understand, however, that genocide is a crime that – even if usually sharing basic mechanisms – is highly context-specific. For instance, the recent episodes in Rwanda unfortunately showed us how rape can also be genocidal when it targets a specific population not only to systematically and utterly humiliate, degrade and dehumanize members of a specific group, but also as a “demographic policy”, violently forcing victims to carry children that would be considered to belong to another ethnic group.

In this sense, as stressed by Card (2003), social death (relating to the intentional stripping, as an end in itself, of victims’ ability to join in social activity) seems to be the distinguishing characteristic of genocide (in comparison to mass murders, for instance), since what attaches meaning to life is precisely the social vitality created by both contemporary and intergenerational relationships that forge identities. In this sense, the loss of social vitality implies the loss of identity, which consequently entails a loss of meaning in existence. Following this line of thought, I cannot think of anyone who would be able to sustain that non-lethal genocidal acts are preferable to the lethal ones, and, by extension, that social death is any less grave than physical death: Ultimately, they are all part of the same crime.

Granted, I am not Uyghur, and during my research I did not conduct interviews, nor engaged with victims in any way. But I believe the previous description may be very similar to what Uyghurs worldwide are feeling. The Chinese State is making them continuously terrified. They must listen to the testimonies of women who suffered sexual and reproductive violence and think about their mothers, sisters, daughters, friends. They must continuously worry for their family members, friends, imams and prestigious intellectuals locked up in internment camps. They must pray for their children, far away from home. And the people directly suffering those human rights violations must be wishing they were dead, or that they were born Han, or, even better, in a fairer, less violent, world. The treatment they receive is making them scared to do things that make them who they are: to go to the mosque and talk to their friends in Uyghur language; to dress as they like; to teach their children how to pray; to buy and eat halal food; to greet each other by saying Salam Aleikum. They are alienated from their families, their traditions, from the codes that used to guide them in their reality, and from the possibility to pass them on to their descendants. This is social death. This is physical death. This is genocide.

Given this context, in this interview I talked to Dr. Gyorgy Tatar, the director of the Budapest Centre for Mass Atrocities Prevention and one of the experts who offered their precious consultancy to the Newsline Institute for the writing of this incredibly needed report. He also wrote a paper entitled “What is at stake in handling the case of the Uyghurs?”, which can be found here. We talked about the specificities of this particular atrocity, and the deep political and structural problems that are delaying a proper international response.

The views expressed in the interview and article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Institute for Cultural Relations Policy or its affiliate organisations. The designations employed and the presentation of the material in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of ICRP or its officers concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning delimitation of any frontiers or boundaries.

The latest report published by the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy clearly and thoroughly shows how the Chinese government bears state responsibility in relation the article 2 of the genocide convention regarding human rights violations perpetrated against the Uyghur population within its territory. In this light, I will be talking to Gyorgy Tatar today, a specialist who has provided consultancy to the Institute for the preparation of the report and that was very kind to agree to have a brief chat today. I was wondering if you could tell me a little about what your organization and who you are to introduce you to our listeners.

Actually, my organization’s name is Foundation for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities and our operational body is the so-called Budapest Centre for Mass Atrocities Prevention. So we use these two names, we are an unbiased international organization which was established in Budapest, just 10 years ago and started our activities. We basically are to prevent these tragedies in the world and we try to promote the implementation of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect. Generally, we try to make advocacy for the implementation of this principle, to build up capabilities and capacities in the international arena actors, we are in touch with regional organizations, with big international organizations, governments… Geographically, we work worldwide, definitely, but in the last few years we have focused, obviously, on Europe (Central Europe) and we try to build up capabilities in this region. We have a special focus on youth, as we think that the youth is an agent of change.


So I understand you are a former diplomat. Could you extend a little bit on how did you begin this work on genocide?

Really, I have spent more than 3 decades in bilateral diplomacy as a member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary and afterwards I switched to the European Union (the Council Secretariat of the EU) where I was the head to a taskforce which worked for the High Representative for the European Union for Foreign Affairs and I was responsible for horizontal security issues and for prevention of violent conflicts and it was then where I started to work more thoroughly on prevention of genocide and prevention of these gravest international crimes under IL. And so, afterwards, when my contract with the Council Secretariat finished, I established this foundation and for 10 years I have been in charge of this foundation and I try to prevent, basically, these crimes.


What are, in your opinion, the distinctive characteristics in the way that the Uyghur genocide has been undertaken and where is its particular relevance within the current international landscape? So, in other words: in your opinion, what is at stake right now?

Actually, we have to know that obviously, the Budapest Centre pays attention to any tragedy in the world that is genocide or the gravest crimes in the international arena, but we do pay a specific attention on the case of the Uyghurs because this is something that is not very usual. Firstly, we have to know that these crimes, what we speak about, they are really very grave and extreme and these are the 4 crimes of the principles of Responsibility to Protect, these are: genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The international experts speak of these crimes that have been perpetrated by the Chinese authorities for the last few years and started collecting documentation. What is specific in the current situation, in this report quoted by you, we also spoke about that it is not only about the perpetration of this crimes, but also the intent to perpetrate genocide is already punished by the UN Genocide Convention which was adopted in 1948. And then we can already find some documents which speak about the intent of the Chinese government to perpetrate these crimes. And let me just quote here two things, one is the religious official of China, who has published a phrase on his Xinhua page on the 10th of August 2017, where he spoke about “to break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins”. So this is about the Uyghurs, and just let me quote another document which was adopted by the Chinese government in May 2010, which speaks about the Strike Hard Campaign against violent terrorism in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region against Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims. So this is a very clear document about the intention – whether they have done it or not, this could be disputed. So this is the first thing which is very specific, the second one – and I will be a bit shorter – is that these crimes have been perpetrated or intended to be perpetrated by one of the Permanent Members of the Security Council of the UN which has not happened since the Cold War finished, so for the last 30 years. The next point, which is also very, very, important is that it happens under the reference of fight against extremism and here that might serve as a very bad precedent – that, under the flag of combatting extremist, any state may perpetrate these crimes against a minority. And the next point is that the government has started fighting, in the spirit of collective guilt or in the spirit of collective punishment against a minority. And this has never happened. And one last point, which makes this case very specific, is that this is the first time that the tools of artificial intelligence, the tools of surveillance have been applied to perpetrate this sort of grave, grave, crimes. Because the tools of artificial intelligence which could be useful, such as surveillance, monitoring, also to develop and apply lethal weapons against minorities, social media to amplify hatred and sentiments against minority groups, so this is a threat and this is a risk that will have to be responded properly by the international community, and which has not paid due attention to these risks. Therefore the Budapest Centre really wants to call the attention of the international community to these new, emerging, risks. Those who are interested in this topic may read several articles written by the Budapest Centre in that regard. So, this is why we pay specific attention to this situation.


The situation is very grim, indeed. So, you said before, for example, that the Strike Hard campaign began in 2010, for example. So, more than 10 years ago. And I believe that given the whole troublesome history of ethnic conflict between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese in China, this stresses that we must pressure on the prevention of genocide and respond right away when we see that there is a preparation underway. So, in this light, what is your opinion regarding the international response to the issue so far?

The point is that, until now, what we can see is as usual, you know? There are some countries which claim and blame Chinese authorities for perpetrating genocide, crimes against humanity, there are a lot of documents, and the other group of countries behind the Chinese dismiss all these claims. So, there is a stalemate in this situation. Whilst the point here is that after the Cold War, as I mention to you, if the Permanent Members of the Security Council will not be able to address this situation properly, effectively and efficiently, at least, that would undermine the significance of the Permanent Members of the Security Council which is a very sensitive issue, particularly today, when we can witness the change in the international situation: the multipolar world emerges and there is this new world that we will have to properly address. At stake this is also whether this very serious situation will become victim of the geopolitical rivalry or if the Security Council permanent members will be able to address this situation from the point of view of the documents which have been adopted in 1948, but also I can refer here to the document adopted in 2005 about the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect which also enables the international community, first of all, to help any States not to commit these 4 crimes, the R2P crimes, and then to also adopt measures even coercive measures, to stop the perpetration of these crimes. So, at stake here we see the reputation and the credibility of the permanent members of the Security Council. So, what can we do? There are a lot of proposals on the table. And let me also just refer here to the recent report published by the Human Rights Watch which lists a lot of measures, but we, as Budapest Centre, we really want to add two things what has not been listed so far by any organization. First of all: that if the Permanent Members of the Security Council are not able to address the situation, we need to find another forum within the UN which is able to address the situation – and, for that, the General Assembly is properly entitled to do that. So, if due to the geopolitical rivalry, the international community is not able to address this situation, then we need to turn to another forum. This is the first point. The second point is – this is also in the spirit of the actions and activities of the Budapest Centre – we do call the attention of the international community of the obligation of each state to build up its capabilities to get immune from the perpetration of mass atrocities. Until now, we have spoken a lot that no state is immune from mass atrocities, and this is correct! But this is high time to act, to do something, do get immune. So for that reason, we propose that each state revisists its national capabilities and check if they are able to get immune from mass atrocity crimes and the international community will have to adopt some benchmarks according to which this sort of investigation of national capabilities will take place in the foreseeable future. Actually, all that I here mentioned for the last few minutes is summarized in my two-page report which is in the website of the BCMAP and if you want to read it more carefully, feel free to do that.


You talked before about the possibility of creation and utilization of another forum within the UN, so given the extreme politicization of this issue and the political crisis even within the Security Council, do you think that the failure in the management of this issue could bring about further debates on the Security Council reforms, for example? Because our international system within the UN, most of the UN treaties for example are incredibly voluntary, and China for example has not even signed the Rome Convention, so we’d have to strike out personal, individual, responsibility out of the table due to the failure to even sign and ratify conventions and covenants, so what is your opinion about that?

Look, I think, as I mentioned to you, we are in a new era of the international community and this is a transitional period, so the bipolar and unipolar world has changed and now we speak about a multipolar world. Even in the past, the international community was not very successful in addressing the wars, the interstate wars, and right now, for the last few decades, we have been witnessing many intra-state affairs which threatens the lives of populations. So, we need to introduce, definitely, new methods, new measures, which protect much better the populations from these, in general terms, the security of populations, so the human security will have to be much better protected, and prevented from perpetration of crimes. Whatever will improve the possibilities of the international community to prevent and to halt these crimes, for me it’s a step forward, and I don’t want to push something which is not feasible, you know? As a diplomat, we have to see also the framework. But it is definitely a point that we need to find new tools, new measures, new frameworks, which will much better protect the populations from these crimes.

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