From 4 to 7 June London hosts the first set of hearings of the Uyghur Tribunal, a people tribunal set up to gather and examine evidence of human rights abuses and genocide by the Chinese government on the Uyghur population.
The constitution of the Tribunal, a quasi-judicial organization composed by independent members of the civil society whose judgement is not legally binding, is only the latest development in the multi-decade struggle involving the Uyghur people and the Chinese government.
On the eve of its opening, we spoke with Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress and the main promoter of the Tribunal.
Mr. Isa, many in the West are still unfamiliar with the Uyghur struggle, which only recently gained the attention of international media circles. Can you give us a brief description of the present situation of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang and how it came to be?
The Chinese government is carrying out a genocide against the Uyghur people. Discrimination against the Uyghurs is nothing new, it has a long history, but since 2014 we can say that the government is implementing a policy of complete ethnic cleansing. We know that more than 3 million Uyghurs are now closed in concentration camps. China tried to deny the presence of the camps but, after the publication of evidence and international pressure, it was forced to admit to their existence.
The government started to pretend that they were simply ‘vocational training centers’ in which Uyghurs were trained to achieve a ‘better future’.
However, there is countless evidence of people with no need for vocational training (like professors, singers, pensioners and others) being detained in the camps.
This is the largest detention system since the Second World War, and along with it we’ve seen Uyghurs women subjected to forced sterilization and between 800.000 and 1 million children being separated from their families, being subjected to indoctrination and to the erasure of their national and religious identities by changing their names and forcing them to speak Chinese.
In recent years thousands of mosques were demolished and it was made impossible for the Uyghurs to follow their religious traditions correctly, with the promulgation of laws forbidding Uyghurs to fast or go regularly to the mosques.
Even growing a beard can put you at risk of being classified as a terrorist.
What we know about the situation inside the camps came to us through the testimonies of camp survivors and refugees since China effectively closed nearly all other lines of communication and the people there are completely isolated.
I myself was able to gain knowledge of my mother’s death in 2017 only through the international media.
This is the situation in Xinjiang: the Chinese government is trying to cancel Uyghur identity at every level, by erasing our culture and religion and destroying our communities and families.
It appears that Chen Quanguo, the secretary of the Communist Party in Xinjiang, was instrumental in developing not only the camps but also a system of strict control on the daily life of Uyghur people in the region. Can you describe it?
Chen Quanguo transformed the entire region in an open-air prison, setting up a multitude of checkpoints and roadblocks, with over 960 police monitoring stations placed only in the capital, Urumqi.
He sent Communist Party members to live with Uyghur families to monitor them and enquire in every aspect of their lives.
Beside this, China uses digital technology to surveil Uyghur public life in every place and every moment, through face recognition cameras and phone apps.
This technology is also used in other provinces of China, like Tibet, and in Hong Kong and is also being exported for use in some European states, like Serbia.
Other Muslim minorities in China, like the Hui, are not discriminated to the same levels of the Uyghur people. So, why the Uyghurs?
The Chinese government persecutes all minorities, but it focuses mainly on the Tibetans and Uyghurs because they try to achieve autonomy and self-determination. The government doesn’t aim to integrate different people, it aims to assimilate them completely.
The Uyghur people’s autonomy was theoretically recognized in 1949 but it was never really implemented.
Another reason is that East Turkistan is an occupied territory which holds economic and political importance for the Chinese government.
Indeed, now the region is central to what Xi Jinping sees as a very important project, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, meant to develop infrastructure for trade and to expand Chinese influence along the old Silk Road.
Up until very recently and with very few exceptions, the Uyghurs had no real international support, either from States or non-governmental organizations. How do you explain this?
This is a consequence of China’s economic influence. Projects like the “Belt and Road Initiative” are used by China to extend its influence and peacefully gain territories, by conceding credit to other countries in exchange for land and support.
This is the case of Central Asian countries, whose governments are very corrupt, but also of some countries in Africa.
As for the US and Europe, while in the past China, due to its economic weakness, depended on Western investment and technology to reach economic development, now the tables have turned and China is increasingly influent on Western economies.
This caused its actions on the international stage to become bolder while Western states behave cautiously towards it.
Now the US and some EU governments are beginning to sanction China and some of its officials in consequence to the mounting evidence of forced labour and genocide.
That’s a very significant step in the right direction, but it’s still far too cautious.
It’s still not enough.
For example, an official like Chen Quanguo, the Party secretary in Xinjiang and the creator of the camp system, has still not been sanctioned by the EU.
Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries which historically showed at least some support for the Uyghur struggle, but in recent years it seemed more reticent to do so. What do you think about its position on the matter today?
The Turkish opposition and people are pressuring the government to take a strong position in recognizing the genocide against the Uyghurs.
The hope is that it could have a domino effect on other Muslim countries, pushing them in the same direction.
However, relations between Turkey and China are particularly worrying to us because there is a big number of Uyghur refugees in Turkey, whose bureaucratic status is still uncertain and who are at risk of being forcibly deported to Xinjiang.
There is a particular concern regarding the China-Turkey extradition law, which may be approved in the near future, because China considers essentially all Uyghurs as criminals and might request their extradition.
What should governments, NGOs, groups, and individuals do to support the Uyghur struggle?
All free people, countries, civil societies and religious institutions have the moral obligation to stop the genocide.
It must be clear that this is not a simple human rights violation, it is genocide.
The US, the EU countries, the UK, and Canada should jointly sanction Chinese government officials, their parliaments should keep recognizing and condemning the genocide and, this is a suggestion, they should take practical actions, like boycotts or economic sanctions, to strike China economy.
At other levels the problem is that a lot of people believe Chinese propaganda, propagated by Beijing trough diplomacy, disinformation campaigns and economic influence.
It’s also a big problem that China doesn’t recognize the international criminal court and is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which hamper the action of international organizations.
It is to address this that an independent Uyghur Tribunal was formed in London, chaired by the famous lawyer sir Geoffrey Nice, to gather all information and evidence about the genocide.
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