After more than 70 years of Chinese rule over the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, there’s mounting evidence that in recent years, their occupation has intensified into an environment of strict surveillance, with more than a million Uighurs held in internment camps.
Reports show many are forced to pick cotton and work in factories that supply international brands and that some Uighurs are even subjected to forced sterilizations and organ harvesting.
For several years, Beijing repeatedly denied those allegations, while companies like Nike said they’ve made sure they’re not using Uighur slave labor. But some recent developments suggest 2021 may see a breakthrough in the Uighurs’ long struggle for justice, with help from a new group of international lawmakers.
“I’m accusing the Chinese authorities of the worst crime of the 21st century. I am also accusing the international community for being a part of this crime, for abetting it through its silence.”
“I’m accusing the Chinese authorities of the worst crime of the 21st century. I am also accusing the international community for being a part of this crime, for abetting it through its silence,” European Parliament Member Raphaël Glucksmann of France said during a Dec. 17 debate, through an interpreter. “I’m also accusing Nike and other multinational corporations that are taking advantage of slavery.”
Glucksmann spoke on behalf of a resolution that condemns the Chinese government for the forced labor and exploitation of Uighurs. The European Parliament went on to pass that resolution, which calls for sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for abuses against Uighurs, and for a ban on imports made with forced labor.
“It is progress, but we would have hoped that they would have recognized it as genocide,” Uighur American Salih Hudayar, who leads the nonprofit East Turkistan National Awakening Movement — East Turkistan being the name of Xinjiang when it was a Uighur republic — told The World. “Hopefully, we can get that recognition in the near future as well.”
In July, Hudayar’s group and other Uighurs submitted a complaint to the International Criminal Court accusing China of interning a million Uighurs. In another big development, on Dec. 15, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in an annual report that there was “no basis to proceed” in court because the alleged acts happened in China, and China isn’t a signatory to the treaty that established the ICC, so the body doesn’t have jurisdiction.
“Many people and much of the media have reported that the ICC has rejected the Uighurs’ ICC complaint,” Hudayar said. “However, that's not necessarily true.”
Hudayar says the complaint is still active. He and others just need to present evidence that China has also unlawfully arrested and detained Uighurs in Tajikistan and Cambodia, surrounding countries that do belong to the ICC.
They’re obtaining that evidence with the help of a powerful new group called the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, or IPAC.
“I was actually quite hopeful when I saw the judgment because I thought, ‘OK, right. Well, if you're wanting more evidence of very severe crimes that have happened to Uighurs outside of China, then great. Well, we've got that. Let's work on that. Pull that together.’”
“I was actually quite hopeful when I saw the judgment because I thought, ‘OK, right. Well, if you're wanting more evidence of very severe crimes that have happened to Uighurs outside of China, then great. Well, we've got that. Let's work on that. Pull that together,’” de Pulford said.
He said IPAC is made up of roughly 150 prominent lawmakers from 19 countries, including Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. They came together to work on human rights issues, in part out of frustration about inaction at the United Nations.
De Pulford says IPAC was one of the forces behind legislation that passed in Britain’s House of Lords this month requiring a human rights impact assessment for any trade deal. For the first time, it would give UK judges the power to declare whether there’s evidence of genocide in another country, and revoke a trade agreement.
“There had never been an urgent question in the UK Parliament on Uighurs before IPAC,” de Pulford said. “It's got Parliament talking about it much more than ever before, and I think that we're partly responsible for that, no doubt about it.”
De Pulford says international efforts finally seem to be snowballing. In October, Canada came as close as any country has to declaring the Uighur crisis a genocide with a report from a parliamentary committee studying the issue.
“The subcommittee unequivocally condemns the persecution of this population and was persuaded to state that these actions constitute genocide,” said Liberal Canadian Parliament Member Peter Fonseca from Ontario.
All this may bode well for legislation in the US Senate that would ban imports made in Xinjiang unless companies can prove that their products were not made with forced labor. After all, this summer, the US imposed sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the persecution of Uighurs.
Hudayar of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement says more positive steps can’t come soon enough.
“Inside East Turkistan, the people are facing unforeseen atrocities since the Holocaust,” he said. “Every day that we are silent, more and more people are being killed.”
That includes four of his family members within the last two years, Hudayar said. He hopes the international community will finally take meaningful action before any of his other relatives go missing.