U.S. think tank report determines China’s persecution of Uyghurs as genocide

A think tank in the U.S. released an independent report on Monday, determining that Beijing’s ongoing persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has violated all provisions in the United Nations’ Genocide Convention. Some authors of the report think the result can push other countries to take necessary actions.

The Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in the United States published a report on Monday, which compared evidence of China’s persecution of the Uyghurs and the United Nations’ Genocide Convention and determined that China’s actions constitute genocide. The report emphasized that China needs to bear state responsibility for an ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs in breach of the Genocide Convention.

More than 50 experts from around the world work together to examine existing evidence and provisions under the convention. Some notable names include former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, American legal scholar Martha Minow, Chief Charles Taku and American legal scholar David Scheffer.

According to Rayhan Asat, an Uyghur lawyer who also worked on the report, the report is a significant first step to address the “egregious atrocities” that have taken place in Xinjiang over the last five years. “Genocide determination is significant in any given context, as it demands that states and the international community take action,” Asat said. “We must carefully scrutinize the facts in making the determination of such atrocity.”

Yonah Diamond, an international human rights lawyer and legal counsel at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, said the report’s determination is to both prevent and punish the crime.

“According to Article III of the convention, once there have been conclusively established a commission of genocide, the act of complicity in genocide is punishable under Article 3 and therefore, states now have to grapple with this report,” Diamond said. “States now have obligation to halt the complicity in the genocide, which is what makes this report so significant.”

China violated all the provisions

One of the most important references for the report is the United Nations’ Genocide Convention, which was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948. It clearly defines what constitutes genocide, and China is one of the 152 signatories. Article II of the convention clearly states that genocide is an attempt to commit acts “with an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Additionally, it also determines five ways for genocide to take place: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Even though violating one provision under the convention will usually be determined as genocide, but experts writing the report determined that China’s persecution of Uyghurs has violated all the provisions under the Genocide Convention.

“China’s policies and practices targeting Uyghurs in the region must be viewed in their totality, which amounts to an intent to destroy the Uyghurs as a group, in whole or in part,” the report stated.

Even though the convention didn’t specify punishments that perpetrators of genocide will face, the convention does require all other 151 signatories to take responsible actions. “The obligation is on states to unilaterally assess China’s violation of the genocide convention and we have provided the rigorous process by independent experts from around the world,” said Yonah Diamond, who also contributed to the report. “This provides an even firmer basis than a government’s internal process.”

China’s official data becomes evidence

According to the report, since China launched a campaign targeting Islamic extremism in 2014, around 1 million to 2 million Uyghurs have been detained in as many as 1400 extrajudicial internment facilities in Xinjiang. Beijing describes the crackdown as a necessary response to a series of deadly attacks in Xinjiang and other parts of China. The incidents were categorized as terrorist activities.

Additionally, the report also details how China committed sexual assault, psychological torture, cultural assimilation, and deaths within the internment camps.

“Uyghur detainees within the internment camps are … deprived of their basic human needs, severely humiliated and subjected to inhumane treatment or punishment, including solitary confinement without food for prolonged periods,” wrote the report. “Suicides have become so pervasive that detainees must wear ‘suicide safe’ uniforms and are denied access to materials susceptible to causing self-harm.”

The report also used official data and documents from China to prove that the number of formal prosecutions and convictions skyrocketed in 2017 and 2018 as 350,000 people were prosecuted in courts across Xinjiang. Less than 30,000 people were prosecuted annually in prior years, the report stated.

Based on another official document from 2019, the local government in Xinjiang came up with a plan to perform mass female sterilization in rural Uyghur regions, targeting 14 and 34 percent of all married women of childbearing age in two Uyghur counties.

“Between 2015 and 2018, the growth rates in the two largest Uyghur prefectures decreased by 84 percent,” the report wrote. “In 2019, only about 3 percent of married women of childbearing age in Kashgar and Hotan gave birth.”

How should the international community respond to the report?

In fact, Rayhan Asat’s brother Ekpar Asat was one of the millions of Uyghurs that are currently detained by the Chinese government. After attending a leadership training program run by the US State Department, Ekpar disappeared and lost contact with his sister. In January 2020, Rayhan learned that her brother has been charged with “inciting ethnic hatred” and sentenced to 15 years.

“My brother’s case is a perfect example of the Chinese government’s intent to destroy the Uyghur people as a whole,” Asat said. “Confronting this reality has been very painful for me as a direct family member of a victim. However, I must overcome these personal challenges, and act as a lawyer, to help protect my brother and the lives of so many other innocent Uyghurs imprisoned in these camps.”

She hopes the report’s determination can galvanize an international response and call on countries that used to remain quiet on the issue of the Uyghurs to take action. “The evidence in this report should provide governments with the justification they need to act and deprive them of any further excuse for looking the other way,” Asat said. “The Chinese government has caused grievous harm to my family and other Uyghur families, and the world must stand united against these atrocities.”

Yonah Diamond thinks that even though countries probably can’t hold China accountable through the international criminal court or the international court of justice, they can rely on other UN bodies authorized by the UN General Assembly to refer an advisory opinion to the international court of justice.

“It’s a very feasible option,” Diamond said. “I think there is enough support to reach a majority in the General Assembly, which will allow countries to refer the request to the international court of justice as an advisory opinion. The court doesn’t have to specifically adjudicate genocide, but they could indicate to states what their specific obligations are under the clause to prevent and punish the crime, and what it means to be complicit in the crime.”

Diamond points out that Uyghurs have been waiting on the genocide designation for years, and he thinks the designation of genocide is an important recognition that the Uyghurs are facing eradication and they need the world to recognize this immediately.

“I think this is first and foremost an important source of comfort for the Uyghurs,” Diamond said. “It is an important first step towards justice and accountability for the perpetrators and the states.”

The piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.