On the last day of August, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, published its long-awaited report on human rights violations against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. The report constitutes the first firm position assumed by the UN against the actions of the Chinese government in the region but stops short of describing them as a form of cultural genocide, in contrast with the position of many human rights organizations and countries.
We spoke about the report, its meaning, its possible effects with Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress.
Mr. Isa, the recent report by the OHCHR constitutes the first recognition by the UN of the dire human rights situation in Xinjiang but avoids defining the actions of the Chinese government as a cultural genocide and its content hardly represents breaking news since it has already been brought to the public attention by numerous media and human rights organizations. What are your thoughts about its publication and relevance?
The report is, of course, significant, and important for the Uyghur cause but it is not enough. A lot of information is missing and it doesn’t describe the full scope of the atrocity committed against the Uyghurs by the Chinese government in part because the publication of this report was delayed for a year after it was finalized in September 2021, thanks to China trying to pressure the High Commissioner not to publish it and in part because it doesn’t describe the violations as a genocide.
It must be also considered that the High Commissioner was not allowed to actually reach the concentration camps at the time of her official visit to the region nor spoke with any detainee.
These limitations to her visit were put in place by China under the excuse that it was not an “investigation” but a diplomatic visit, even if the High Commissioner is clearly not a diplomat but the head of the highest human rights institution in the world, whose role is to investigate human right violations.
There is no doubt that what is taking place is a genocide, there are reports from multiple international media sources, personal testimonies, studies, satellite images, and leaked government documents that prove it.
Not only is the picture painted by these sources very clear, but it must be considered that these testimonies may constitute only a small part of the unfolding atrocity against Uyghurs, since China has cut off almost all communications with the region, something which in itself is evidence of China’s crimes against humanity.
It is disappointing that the report does not focus as much as it should on issues like forced abortion or forced labor and slavery, particularly considering that the last issue was included in a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Slavery.
However, the report does describe China system of forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions and it comes from the highest human rights authority in the world.
This will force the countries which still support China, thanks to its misinformation campaign and influence, to recognize the situation or risk being deemed complicit.
The report is already damaging support for China in Geneva, since the countries who support its statements are less than in the past.
What influence, if any, did the Uyghur Tribunal of last September have on the publication of this report?
The Uyghur Tribunal (a “people’s tribunal”, a quasi-judicial organization whose judgement is not legally binding) presided over by Geoffrey Nice was very important in pushing countries to confront this issue because it presented them with a judgement containing the full information, consisting in hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and more than 500 personal testimonies, on Chinese crimes against the Uyghurs, clarifying why the term genocide applies.
It is also important because it is not a political decision. Indeed, when it was only the US and some Europeans parliaments recognizing the Uyghur genocide, China could simply dismiss them as a Western conspiracy, but the tribunal is an independent organization acting on a basis of international law.
As you surely know, the UN General Assembly and its Human Rights Council are convening as we speak, respectively in New York and Geneva. What kind of actions do you expect from these bodies and their member countries following the publication of the report?
In the past six years these bodies have ignored the issue since there was no indication by the High Commissioner but now, with the publication of this report, there is no more excuse.
At an event organized by Human Rights Watch and the World Uyghur Congress, I publicly asked the UN Human Right Council to immediately schedule an urgent discussion on the Uyghur issue and the General Assembly to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Uyghurs and establish an independent investigative mechanism to deal with the issue.
They should also deal with the urgent situation of members of the Uyghurs diaspora, since many in countries like Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey face the threat of being deported back to China.
Member states of these international organizations should create a protection mechanism for these refugees.
Another issue that should be addressed is the business relations of many major companies, like Adidas or Volkswagen, with a country that makes strong use of forced labor. These business ties should be cut.
Member countries of the EU should also join the US in applying heavier sanctions on China since their core values reside in the respect of human rights, rule of law, democracy, and freedom of expression.
It is time for them to take concrete actions like more economic and political sanctions.
Statements and empty promises are not enough to stop this genocide.
What is the likelihood, according to you, of a significant number of countries adopting these measures, considering China’s international influence?
I know it is not easy, because China has a lot of influence on the global market and many countries depend on its protection.
But it is necessary, because they are legally bound by the 1948 Convention against the crime of genocide and because humanity should strive not to repeat horrible crimes like the Holocaust of 70 years ago.
If European countries have been able to put sanctions on Russia for the present war on Ukraine while depending on it for gas and petrol, they should be able to put sanctions on China recognizing that it is now ignoring all international warnings and that they are partly responsible for the issue since China was able to become so powerful thanks to Western money and technology.
China does not fear Western restrictions like some decades ago, but this will only get worst if Western countries allow it to become stronger and stronger because they fear to lose some temporary benefits. If it is left to rise unchecked China will soon become a threat to global peace.
You talked about the need for the international community to recognize the struggles of Uyghurs abroad, in particular the urgency to stop repatriations. But another big issue that emerged in recent years and is referred to in the report was the impossibility to communicate with family-members, friends, and other members of the Uyghur community still residing in Xinjiang. As you said, however, the report was completed a year ago. Is the situation as dire today as it was then?
It is. Communication is a basic right and most members of the Uyghur diaspora, me included, have lost contact with family members since 2017.
The last time I was able to contact my mother was in April 2017 and since then I have not been able to catch up with any of them. I had to learn from the media that my mother died in a concentration camp. Then, more recently, I have received other terrible news about my family. My father passed away in 2020 in circumstances that I do not know, and in 2021 I learned that both my brothers are detained, one for life and the other for 17 or 24 years according to different people.
This is the tragedy of my family, but my case is far from unique, all the Uyghurs living in the diaspora have the same problem, some stories more horrible some less. For these reasons, many Uighurs in the diaspora suffer from depression, and this is an issue that greatly impacts our daily lives.
Therefore, we ask the international community to put pressure on China to “open the doors,” because we have a right to communicate with our families.
Do you think the current international tensions involving China, directly or indirectly, like the war in Ukraine and the tensions around Taiwan have affected the Uyghur issue in any way?
Of course. For example, when Russia invaded Ukraine last February the Uyghur issue was, at least temporarily, largely put aside but now there is more focus on us again because people and countries are starting to understand the issue.
At times, when direct tensions between China and the US are higher, the focus shifts to other places, like Taiwan. But the reality is that the Uyghur issue, Taiwan, and the events at Hong Kong are all part of the same packet, because China threatens all these people. Now it will be more difficult to ignore the issue because it has become a topic every country will need to consider when engaging in diplomatic relations with China.
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