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Uniting for Uyghurs at the United Nations

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After six years of genocide, hope is hard to come by for us Uyghurs. We found some in August when the outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, released the report we’d long been awaiting. She officially concluded that China’s violations against Uyghurs in Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity. The finding let us dream that the U.N. was finally ready to take meaningful action. Instead, a motion to discuss the findings was unceremoniously defeated in the U.N. Human Rights Council in October by a vote of 19-17, with 11 abstentions. But there may be renewed momentum now, with a joint statement from 50 nations, led by Canada, demanding action against China’s atrocity crimes. As the world marks tomorrow’s International Human Rights Day with its theme of “Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All,” there are several ways the international community can – and must– press ahead.

The October motion in the Human Rights Council didn’t even seek to establish a commission of inquiry for China’s crimes – just a debate on the issues, yet it failed to secure a simple majority vote. Afterwards, in typical fashion, member States whose votes had cost the Uyghur people the chance for a fair hearing professed their solidarity with us, even after siding with China. Ukraine — no stranger to atrocities itself — first abstained, then expressed its regret for doing so. India, likely wary of being taken to task on its own mistreatment of Muslims, voiced its support for the people of Xinjiang only after blocking the motion through abstention. The States that voted against the discussion included Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, whose own citizens have been thrown into Xinjiang camps as part of the Chinese government’s genocide of Turkic peoples. Pakistan, the self-proclaimed protector of the world’s Muslims, said ‘nay’ to holding a conversation on the oppression faced by Muslims just across the border. Indonesia delivered a passionate speech about solidarity with Muslims, only to deliver a vote against the Uyghurs. China essentially bought these votes from corrupt leaders who hope to profit personally from the promised riches of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Though I’ve spent the better part of a decade witnessing the world disgrace itself in this way, the motion’s failure was still difficult for me to believe. Despite its shortcomings, I rely on the ideals of the United Nations. Peace, justice, equality, and dignity are not empty buzzwords for me — I am fighting so that my family and my people might have them. China and the countries lining up behind it, meanwhile, proclaim these values only to justify the unjustifiable and to advance a new vision of human rights that puts the prerogatives of the state over the wellbeing of the individual and of groups that challenge the state’s oppression.

It’s not easy for me to call for patience with the process. As a human rights lawyer and as a Uyghur, the recent setbacks in the U.N. can seem like sure signs of a lost cause. My own brother, Ekpar Asat, an-award winning tech entrepreneur, also fell victim to China’s vast internment camp in the spring of 2016. As my brother wastes away in illegal imprisonment, every cell in my body screams in outrage against the world’s indifference.

But the law and the truth are on our side. China’s crimes against the Uyghurs are well-documented by civil society and media watchdogs as well as by the regime itself. Government agencies across Xinjiang released guidelines and manuals for police policy, prison management, assimilation programs, and surveillance regimes. As Human Rights Watch noted in an April 2021 report, a Chinese religious affairs official in 2017 declared, “Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” The report stated:

The US State Department estimates that, in total, as many as two million people passed through the political education camps alone between April 2017 and December 2018, and a leaked internal memo by Chinese authorities states that 15,683 “suspicious persons” were taken into custody in a single week in June 2017. In 2017, Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo encouraged officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.” Most of those detained in the political education camps are never charged with any crime. Chinese officials have directed local authorities to acknowledge to detainees’ relatives that their loved ones are not criminals, but instead are being held for their own good because they have been “infected by unhealthy thoughts.”

Certainly the United States and other countries on the side of multilateralism are guilty of serious abuses themselves, but, crucially, they mostly support mechanisms that allow such violations to be addressed. The futures of the U.N. and the very concept of human rights are at stake. The OHCHR report still presents an invaluable opportunity to gain traction against what for years has seemed an intractable problem. The report plainly details the egregious human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples, presenting credible evidence of systematic mass internment, enforced disappearance, torture, political indoctrination, forced sterilization, erasure of Uyghur culture and population control, among other rights abuses.

If we want a future in which the Uyghurs continue to exist as a people and in which states cannot carry out genocide with functional impunity, we must force action during this narrow window of opportunity.

Indeed, there are signs of the tide turning. The 50 countries, including the United States, that signed Canada’s joint statement in the wake of the lost vote at the U.N. Human Rights Council, urges China “to uphold its international human rights obligations and to fully implement the recommendations of the OHCHR assessment. This includes taking prompt steps to release all individuals arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in Xinjiang, and to urgently clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing family members and facilitate safe contact and reunion.” Indeed, two successive U.S. secretaries of state, Mike Pompeo and Antony Blinken, as well as parliaments including in Canada, the Netherlands, France, the U.K., and Lithuania have declared that China’s repression of the Uyghurs amounts to genocide.

The next steps are clear: The countries that signed that statement must force another vote at the Human Rights Council before this, too, becomes “old news.” OHCHR’s report was released too close to the Human Rights Council’s September-October session. In the next few months before the council’s February-March session, member States, civil society, and other stakeholders should focus on turning abstention votes to “yes,” in a coordinated campaign, by using OHCHR’s strong report as an advocacy tool.

U.N. member States could even urge a special session, as they did just last month to discuss the “deteriorating situation of human rights” in Iran amid the crackdown on massive protests. As Uyghurs starve to death in China’s latest and most brutal Covid lockdown, States would have good grounds for such an effort. The world already knows how brutal the measures were in Han-majority Shanghai. In Xinjiang, China’s “Zero Covid” policy is carried out by a racist and inept police state with even more disastrous consequences. Last month, 10 Uyghurs burned alive in a brutal fire in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, due to this harshest of COVID lockdowns, even by Chinese standards.  Residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down, and it took firefighters 150 minutes to contain the fire. Many doubt the casualties are far greater than the state-reported 10 deaths. Further investigations revealed that some victims’ fathers and brothers are concentration camp victims, directly connecting COVID restriction with crimes against humanity. This alone should merit a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Second, as the OHCHR report highlighted in its second recommendation for China, many Uyghurs have gone missing and family reunification should be a top priority. Bachelet’s successor, the new high commissioner, Volker Turk, must follow through on the report by pressing China to implement its recommendations.

Additionally, both the OHCHR and U.N. member States must push the Human Rights Council to establish an official commission of inquiry. Such commissions have in the past investigated Israel’s actions against Palestinians, atrocities and other rights abuses in Syria, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and so many others with a mandate for impartial and comprehensive fact-finding and “to promote accountability and counter impunity.” The resolution, which should be tabled at the upcoming Human Rights Council session, must incorporate establishing a missing person mechanism to account for every Uyghur life that has gone missing since the enactment of concentration camps. The Xinjiang Victims Database and similar databases document the deaths and thousands of enforced disappearances despite international investigations.

The disappointing vote on Xinjiang in the Human Rights Council is only a failure if we fail to follow up on it. Council President Federico Villegas called Bachelet’s report “a game changer.” That was the farthest Uyghur advocacy has gotten yet in the U.N. Rather than showing that we are doomed, it represents the progress we have fought for so tirelessly. We are not finished.

IMAGE: People protest at a Uyghur rally on February 5, 2019 in front of the US Mission to the United Nations, to encourage the State Department to fight for the freedom of the majority-Muslim Uighur population unjustly imprisoned in Chinese concentration camps. (Photo TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

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