The brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked the world and rightly so. But what about Ethiopia, China, Yemen, Syria and Myanmar, countries in which atrocities which are no less serious are being committed? Why is the world not holding its breath, opening its heart and swiftly reacting for them too?
STOCKHOLM — Last week U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, declared that the United States recognizes that the Myanmar military has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the country’s Rohingya minority. The murder of thousands and deportation of hundreds of thousands was mostly committed in 2016-2017, but according to Blinken, the troubling situation in Myanmar continues to this day, after the military seized power in 2021. Blinken spoke of “widespread and systematic” attacks and atrocities committed with the clear intent to annihilate.
This is the eighth case since the Holocaust in which the United States recognizes a genocide. The previous were the Armenian genocide during World War I, the murder of Kurds in Iraq, the genocides in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and in Darfur, the murder of the Yazidis and other minorities by the Islamic State, and the genocide in Xinjiang, China, against Uyghurs and other minorities. In his speech, Blinken described the process preceding the murders – discrimination, stripping of rights and citizenship, incitement, imprisonment and deportation. He further went on to detail some of the atrocities – rape, executions, destruction of villages, children burned alive or trampled underfoot by soldiers, and boats sunk with families aboard.
Despite the importance of the U.S. declaration, it is not a necessarily a call for sanctions, nor does it come with an automatic international alignment against the regime in Myanmar. All this stands in sharp contrast to the U.S. attitude toward Russia following its attack on Ukraine. It may be hard to admit, but Ukraine gets a lot more attention than countries where the suffering, devastation and death toll are no smaller. Those imprisoned and tortured in camps in Xinjiang, the ethnic groups slaughtering each other in Ethiopia, and those doing the same even closer to Israel’s border – none of these affairs have made the world hold its breath, open its heart, or change its agenda.
Why, then, does the Myanmar genocide fail to produce headlines and reactions as strong as those sparked by the brutal invasion of Ukraine? It’s not because it it's over. The regime in Myanmar continues to oppress its people and imprison its critics. It is also hard to explain the indifference by geo-political considerations. While the effects of the Ukraine war could be disastrous, what’s happening in Myanmar isn’t a small, localized conflict either. The Russians sell weapons to the regime. The Chinese, who do so as well, share a border with Myanmar, and have massive investments there. Not far from the border, in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya populate the world’s largest refugee camp. International institutions, organizations, and courts are also involved in the conflict. Myanmar may not have nuclear weapons, but it is a larger and more populous country than Ukraine, located in a strategic area between India and China. One would have to be blind or disingenuous not to recognize the simple truth behind the world’s silence and indifference.
After all, it's quite natural. The Rohingya, the Uighurs, and the Tigrayans are not like us. They are distant, alien, and most of us know very little about them. Unlike the Ukrainian refugees on the news, they carry colorful wheeled suitcases with them, not rag bundles. They sit en-route to the border in Mazdas and Toyotas, not on donkeys or in rickety boats. They’re the ones wearing H&M clothes, not those manufacturing them. They are the people for whom Hungary and Poland throw their gates open, not those for whom these countries erect barbed-wire fences and station armed soldiers. It’s very human, and therefore we can, and should, admit: The Ukrainians resemble Europeans, and that's at least one reason that Europeans have opened their hearts. Nor is moral preaching called for. Human empathy is differential. Our emotional connection to our family, our tribe, and our people is an integral part of our civilization. It is a survival tool and a source of beauty and cultural richness, not just an excuse for indifference.
Yet there is also no need to make an ideology of it. We are allowed, are able, and should do for those who are different from us, for those who are foreign and distant, and this is no mere slogan. Here are two examples:
Blinken chose to recognize the genocide in Myanmar at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, of all places, because denial is an integral part of any genocide. The purpose of the denial is not just concealment of the crime, but also denial of the very existence of the annihilated group. That is why recognizing a genocide is not only necessary to rescue or punishment – it is an act of redemption and of struggle against the murderers.
-The book “The Voice of Thy Brother’s Blood” (Dror Lanefesh Press), an anthology of poetry by victims of genocide, including those in Myanmar, was recently published in Hebrew. The book, which also includes “The Poem of the Murdered Jewish People” by Yitzhak Katzenelson, shows that even when our sympathy is turned first to Jews and Israelis, we can also hear the poetry of others, teach it in schools, read it at ceremonies, and thus aid the victims and fight the murderers by, in a way, bringing the dead back to existence.
No less important: Decent people must ask themselves what part their country plays in the misfortune of others. In the case of Israel and Myanmar, the answer is clear. The Myanmar military is equipped, among others, by Israeli weapons, which it continued purchasing until at least 2018. Because it's so obvious, it may be unnecessary to mention the tragic aspect of the Jewish state exporting arms that assist in a genocide. But it is, however, necessary to fight this phenomenon. Israeli NGO "YANSHUF – Arms Exports: Transparency and Oversight" does just that, promoting legislation against weapons exports to homicidal regimes. Israel is one of the world’s largest weapons exporters. It is not a signatory on the Arms Trade Treaty, and it sells weapons to murderous regimes as well. We should support YANSHUF’s struggle to promote legislation on the subject and by this help prevent the next genocide.
One after another they took the witness stand, and in soft voices described what they endured in the camps China has built to incarcerate its Muslim citizens. A report from the tribunal that convened in London to decide one question: Is genocide being perpetrated against the Uyghur people?
David Stavrou, LONDON – “It was one of the darkest, most tragic days of my life,” the witness stated, referring to her arrest in March 2018. “There were already four big buses at the gate when I arrived. Some people had children, and police officers took the children away by force and took them to another bus to be sent somewhere else. As soon as you enter, there are two armed guards standing on the left and right. They have a machine that scans people. In another room, there were two police officers who searched everyone, and they ripped off all their clothes. An old woman was standing in front of me, about 70 years old. They tore off her skirt, leaving only her underwear. She tried to cover her breasts, the policeman did not allow her to do that… Her hijab was also viciously ripped off. I can’t forget that scene to this day. I didn’t have time to take my earrings off, they pulled them off so viciously that my ears started bleeding.”
The speaker was Tursunay Ziyawudun, 43. She gave her testimony last June before a people’s tribunal in London that was established to investigate the policy that the Chinese regime has been carrying out for years against citizens of the Uyghur minority in the region of Xinjiang. Ziyawudun’s account of her imprisonment makes for unbearable reading. She talked about female prisoners disappearing at night, some of whom did not return; about injections and pills that she and the other inmates were given regularly, which caused the disruption of the menstrual cycle, hallucinations and general confusion. There were also cases of brutal violence and rape by police. “I have no words to describe the inhuman cruelty of the violence,” she testified, adding, “I was raped by three of them together. I remember it very clearly. I can’t cry and I can’t die, I must see them pay for this. I am already a walking corpse, my soul and heart are dead.”
The descriptions of these atrocities, recounted time and again by the hundreds of witnesses who shared their stories, either in writing or in appearances before the tribunal are consistent with the allegations that have been voiced against China for some years. Human rights organizations and Western parliaments maintain that the Chinese regime is committing serious crimes against Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, in the country’s northwest. According to the allegations, the Chinese have coercively incarcerated more than a million persons under harsh conditions in “reeducation” camps, where they have subjected them to medical experiments, brainwashing, torture and rape. In addition, the Chinese leadership is accused of subjecting the population in the region to forced labor, of attempting to destroy the Uyghur culture and language, and of effectively turning the area as a whole into a vast prison, which it monitors with the aid of advanced technologies. And beyond even these outrages, human rights activists allege that the regime is also carrying out coerced abortions, separating children from their parents and murdering prisoners in order to harvest their organs.
Nonetheless, China is not paying a price of any sort. No international court is conducting proceedings against Beijing, the United Nations Security Council has not condemned its government, most countries continue to maintain normal diplomatic relations with China, and corporations worldwide haven’t stopped doing business with the regime. The Chinese, for their part, lash out against anyone who raises the subject, claiming that it is China that is being subjected to a campaign of vilification and fabricated propaganda, the aim of which is to harm the country.
The reasonable individual in the West, then, confronts a dilemma: Is this a case of a political campaign being waged against China through a cynical use of the suspicions often harbored about Beijing? Or are we witnessing a crime of historic dimensions to which the international community is responding with incomprehensible indifference? The organizers of the Uyghur Tribunal, an extraordinary civilian procedure, are out to discover the truth once and for all. The tribunal is intended to address the following questions: Is China perpetrating a crime against humanity, and have the Uyghur people become the victim of genocide?
These serious accusations against China are being addressed not in the International Criminal Court in The Hague or at the United Nations in New York, but in a medium-size auditorium in London. The tribunal held two four-day hearings this year, in June and in September, and plans to present its conclusions in December. The witnesses who testified before it are individuals who succeeded in escaping from China – and in overcoming their fear that it will avenge their testimony by harming their relatives. The only wish many of them have, it was clear in the London hall, was for their voice to be heard. They gave their testimony only after deciding that silence was no longer an option. Many stated that they had decided to speak, or cry out, for the sake of their spouses, their siblings or their parents, and the sake of their people in general. They spoke quietly and with restraint, but effectively were shouting for help: Save my sister, my father, my mother – save my people.
An additional tragic element hovered over the scene. In contrast to the witnesses’ expectations, the whole world was not watching. Even the hall itself was not full. Most of the September sessions were attended by about 50 people, most of them activists, experts or family members. There were few journalists or television cameras. Although the tribunal received a modicum of British and international media coverage, it vanished quickly in the shadow of the events in Afghanistan, and the ongoing pandemic and climate crises. There are simply not enough foreign news slots available.
Still, the witnesses seemed to have realistic expectations from the tribunal. “China is not a member of the ICC in The Hague, so it’s impossible to obtain justice for the Uyghurs,” Nyrole Elimä, 36, from Xinjiang, who now lives in Sweden, told Haaretz. “We are not like Israel, which was able to bring Eichmann to trial by itself. We will never have that [possibility], our genocide has no court, so when the most respected jurist in Britain and the professors and PhDs of the panel arrived, I wanted to tell them our story.”
Elimä was referring to Sir Geoffrey Nice, a barrister and former professor of law who led the prosecution of Slobodan Milošević, former president of Serbia, at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in the years 1998-2006, and decided to take on this mission as well. The other eight members of the tribunal are British public figures from a range of fields (and not necessarily China experts) – law, medicine, business, human rights, education and culture – who have committed to maintain an impartial procedure. Also involved are researchers, interpreters and advisers who have been collecting testimony and other materials for more than a year. The tribunal has amassed hundreds of thousands of pages on the subject, including the stories of some 500 witnesses and explanations by about 100 experts from various fields. As such, it has become the repository of the most significant body of knowledge in the world on this subject.
Nevertheless, the tribunal, which was established as a private initiative and is funded entirely by donations, has no standing in international law and no powers of enforcement. It cannot arrest suspects, impose sanctions or punish anyone. All that its members can do is to strive to uncover the truth, in the hope that the international community will be ready to listen and to act accordingly. And there is another crucial difference between this tribunal and others like it. In contrast to the international proceedings conducted in the wake of World War II, and following the Yugoslavia conflicts and the genocide in Rwanda – the Uyghur Tribunal is being held in real time. The alleged crimes it is supposed to examine continue to be committed, even as the tribunal meets. This fact lends its work a sense of urgency and deep responsibility, even if not legal force.
‘Separatism, terrorism, extremism’
More than 25 million people live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as it is officially called. Of them about 40 percent are Han Chinese, the country’s largest, and dominant, ethnic group. The others are members of ethnic minorities, of which the Uyghur is the largest. In recent decades, the region, which today remains autonomous only in name, has undergone an industrialization process in the wake of massive investments by the regime, which also moved large numbers of Han Chinese into the region. These changes generated tension between the local population and the central government and led to separatist activity by groups of Uyghurs, including a number of terrorist attacks. In 2014, the regime declared a war against “separatism, terrorism and extremism” in the region. The conflict grew more acute in 2017, when the government’s representative in the region was replaced. The new Communist Party Committee Secretary of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who for years had been in charge of suppressing the protest movement in Tibet, intensified the policing, monitoring and supervision of the local population.
Some of the witnesses who spoke to the tribunal described the radicalization of the regime’s actions vis-a-vis the population: the systematic destruction of mosques across the region, the demolition of Uyghur neighborhoods and villages under the guise of a war on poverty, and the forced transfer of the population to new neighborhoods in the cities, where they live under strict governmental surveillance, and are forced to work in factories. In the course of just a few years, the entire region became a police state. “I couldn’t recognize my native village,” said a Kazakhstan citizen who was born in Xinjiang and visited his relatives in 2017. “My family was afraid to talk to me.”
As the oppression in Xinjiang has become more acute, it has become dramatically more difficult to obtain firsthand information about developments on the ground. Reliable journalistic reporting from the region has been effectively nonexistent for some years. Any member of the press entering the region gets to see only what the authorities want to show them, so information flows from very limited sources: witnesses who manage to escape from the country, analyses of satellite images, information that appears (sometimes by mistake or inadvertently) in the local media, and leaked official documents that reach the Western media. Thus the broad mosaic of testimonies voiced in the tribunal is highly exceptional. The grimmest of them come from the men and women who were incarcerated in “reeducation” camps.
Many of the women who were imprisoned testified about being raped, about being forced to take medications and about medical examinations whose purpose was unstated. One of them is Gulbahar Jelilova, 57, who was imprisoned for 15 months on a charge of engaging in terrorist activity. She told about interrogations in which she was tied to a chair for 24 hours, during which, whenever she fell asleep, she would be awakened with an electric shock. When she refused to sign a confession, she was raped. “There was only one bed in the room with a bedcover and a table and chair,” Jelilova related in her testimony (given in Uyghur and translated into English by the tribunal). “They asked me to sit on the chair and they chained me to it. There were three people, one on computer, one translating and one interrogating. They asked me again to sign. I refused and said I need a lawyer. They said I had to sign it to get my freedom. One of the Chinese men removed his trousers and approached me and tried to put his penis in my mouth. I said, ‘Don’t you have a sister and mother?’… The other Chinese man was beating me.”
She also told the tribunal about the fates of some of the other women she was incarcerated with: mothers who gave birth in the camp and had their newborns taken from them, women whose arms were bound to their legs for extended periods, so that they could not stand erect, others who were taken to the “dark room” – a cage of one meter by one meter, beneath which water flows and where it is impossible to stand up. So crowded were the cells, Jelilova said, that the inmates were forced to sleep in shifts, because there wasn’t enough room for all of them to lie down at the same time. They had to relieve themselves standing up and with cameras constantly trained on them. Like many other witnesses, she too noted the meager food and moldy bread, and the effort at brainwashing by having to sing songs of praise to the party for hours on end.
“We were made to say things like ‘I love China’ or ‘I love [Chinese President] Xi Jinping,’” stated Gulzire Awulqanqizi, 42, from the city of Ghulja in Xinjiang, who spent time in four different camps in 2017 and 2018. “We had to write down everything, our feelings and our gratitude toward Xi Jinping. Once every week they would mark our writings, and they would tell us that if we failed to pass, we would be kept inside the camp our whole life.” She too was forced to take pills and endure inoculations that affected her cognitive abilities and disrupted her menstrual cycle. She was interrogated 19 times, beaten and forced to eat pork, which is forbidden to her as a Muslim. In some cases, she related, inmates were made to burn copies of the Koran.
In one of the camps, she was forced to carry out a particularly onerous task. “My duty was to sit next to the curtain, then when [a member of the] staff comes in with a woman, she writes her name in Chinese and I take her fingerprints, I help her take her clothes off, but not the clothing below the waist. I also had to restrain her hands with chains. I was not allowed to talk to her. Then a man enters the room, and I go sit silently next to the door, outside the room. When the man leaves the room, I take the woman for a shower. There was nothing I could do, I was forced… I would go on to do this task for six months.”
Abdusalem Muhammad, 44, related that when he and other men arrived in their camp, they were stripped naked and thrust into a small, freezing-cold cell. Sixteen men, handcuffed together in pairs, were thrust into a space of 2.5 square meters (27 sq. ft.), in which there wasn’t enough room to sleep. “There was no cover for the bucket which we used as a toilet. We had to smell from the bucket day and night, so we had runny noses or nasal infections,” he testified. He stated that the inmates were required to memorize Chinese poetry that ran on over many pages, and that those whose who failed to commit them to memory were punished. The punishments included savage beatings, sleep and food deprivation, and interrogations that lasted more than 48 hours. In one camp, to which Muhammad was sent in 2015, the prisoners were taken for cruel runs. “They called it a kind of exercise but it was another form of torture,” he told the tribunal. “There were 70-year-old ladies, they could not run, even walking was difficult for them, and sometimes they fell or tripped. At that moment, the police officers started to beat or kick [them], so they stood up and ran again.”
One witness said he saw a prisoner beaten to death; another related that in the middle of winter he was thrown handcuffed into a narrow, deep pit where he had water poured on him until he lost consciousness; and another spoke about unexplained blood tests he was forced to undergo. A key witness during the June sessions was a Chinese man who had served as a policeman in Xinjiang before leaving China in 2020. The police officer, Wang Leizhan, now lives in Germany. His testimony, in which he talked about the orders he was compelled to carry out, completes sections of the puzzle. He stated that he was one of 150,000 police officers who were recruited to work in the region and who received training in the political reeducation (he called it “brainwashing”) of the Uyghur population. Police barriers were placed every 500 meters in city streets, and in rural areas even every 200 meters. “All Uyghurs residents in Xinjiang had to provide the Chinese government with DNA samples, to enable continual monitoring of Uyghurs,” he related. “We arrested around 300,000 Uyghurs [because] they might have had a knife at home or because they were exposing their cultural identity, or they were somehow considered to have a different ideology. In some villages in Xinjiang, the whole population of a village was taken to the concentration camps.”
Leizhan testified that he saw prisoners being tortured. Before his eyes, prisoners were made to go down on their knees and were beaten, heads covered with a plastic bag and arms and legs bound, while a pipe funneled water into their mouth. He also witnessed torture by means of electric shocks administered to the genitals, saw hammers being used to break legs and also men being stripped and placed in freezing water, and he recounted how inmates were starved.
Another bit of information provided by the former police officer is especially important: “The children of many adults in the concentration camps have been taken into state orphanages, where they have been assimilated into Han Chinese culture.” Indeed, it emerges from testimony that the Chinese regime is pursuing a particularly brutal policy with regard to Uyghur children. This involves not only the separation of children from their parents but also coerced abortions. “My wife was pregnant for six months and the fetus was ripped out of her body,” Baqitali Nur said in a choking voice.
Rahima Mohammed Nuri, a nurse who worked in a maternity ward where she focused on abortion procedures, provided context for Nur’s account. In her testimony, which she delivered from Turkey, she confirmed that the regime does in fact carry out forced abortions on women, even if they are in advanced stages of pregnancy. A panel member asked whether there were cases in which pregnancy was terminated in the sixth or seventh month and viable living fetuses were delivered. Nuri replied in the affirmative, but added that the mothers received an injection before the infant emerged, so these infants died within 72 hours of birth.
What happens in the hall in London during the moments when testimony is given about the death of an infant or about gang rape? Not much, in fact. There is no sense of dramatic climax: the statements are translated, the social-media people post tweets, some people gape at the witness, others close their eyes. The floor is turned over to the next witness.
Long arm of the regime
It’s difficult to overstate the degree of courage shown by those who came here to tell their story. “I had a panic attack before I took the floor to speak,” says Nyrole Elimä; she was testifying in the name of her cousin, Mayila Yakufu, who was arrested when she tried to transfer money to her parents, who live in Australia. Yakufu was sent to a reeducation camp, where she was later hospitalized, and is currently incarcerated on a charge of financing terrorist activity. “While testifying,” Elimä recalled later, “ I didn’t turn my head, because I was afraid. I know that the Chinese government is checking all the time, I knew they were watching me and I felt as though they were standing next to me. But they left me no choice.”
The fear of the long arm of the Chinese regime is well founded, and even those who managed to flee to the West have cause for apprehension. Omer Rozi, who escaped from Xinjiang after being arrested and tortured, has lived in Norway for some years. “In January 2017,” by which time he was in Norway, “I got a call without a number displayed,” he testified. “I was told on the phone that I would meet my brother and sister. Then they hung up right away. Right after the phone hung up, I got a video call on WeChat. When I opened the WeChat video call my brother and sister were hanging. The police on the video call gave me four conditions [for their release].” The conditions included not approaching anyone else in the Uyghur diaspora and not donating to Uyghur organizations in Turkey. “The last thing I heard was my brother and sister screaming before they hung up. I have not heard anything since then.”
Similarly, Mehray Mezensof, 27, who testified via video link from Australia, related how fearful she was for the fate of her husband, from whom she hadn’t heard for more than a year. “He lives in constant fear,” she says, “always looking over his shoulder.” Relatives understood that he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“The witnesses who are speaking here are very strong,” I am told by Rahima Mahmut, a Uyghur activist who is assisting the tribunal as an interpreter. “But not everyone can be like that. Not everyone is able to speak, not even in front of the family. That is very common. Like many of the survivors of World War II, who didn’t tell anything.” Some witnesses who appeared before the tribunal received threatening calls from Chinese persons, and relatives begged them not to testify. She says she understands those who opted to be silent. Mahmut too has family in Xinjiang, including nine siblings. The last time she spoke with any of them was in 2017. They stopped answering and she stopped calling. She was afraid that getting calls from abroad might land them in danger. But she admits that she too was afraid to discover the truth. In one of the last conversations, she relates, one of her brothers told her, “Leave us in God’s hands.”
The Chinese are undertaking “far-reaching and relentless campaigns to silence, intimidate, harass and slander witness testimonies,” testified Laura Harth, from the human rights organization Safeguard Defenders. The Chinese authorities work on two planes, she says: by issuing international arrest warrants and launching judicial proceedings against Uyghurs in exile who could potential speak out about their experiences, and by threatening their families and other loved ones in China. Harth provided the tribunal with examples of cases in which people who told their stories in the West were accused of embezzlement, cheating on their partners, rape, drug abuse and abandoning their families.
China, which initially denied the existence of the camps, effectively replaced its policy of sweeping denial with a campaign to reshape the discourse. According to Beijing, the camps are used to combat religious extremism and also for professional training, and their residents have chosen to be there of their own free will. At some point the authorities claimed that the camps have served their purpose and the prisoners were released. A series of videos disseminated in China show survivors of camps heaping praise on the process they underwent. In other clips, relatives of witnesses condemn and deny the remarks of their family members. The same phrases are heard over and over in the videos by different families in different places, as if they were speaking from a script.
It turns out that even the expert witnesses, whether Chinese or not, who testified before the tribunal are taking a risk and that many of them suffer ongoing harassment. Muetter Iliqud, an Uyghur researcher in a project that documents the disappearance of Uyghurs, relates that in the days ahead of her presentation to the tribunal, many attempts were made to hack her Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp accounts, and that she and her mother received phone calls from unidentified numbers. Recently her computer stopped working.
Julie Millsap, an American activist who testified about what is being done to Uyghur children, also showed me screenshots of anonymous Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts that harassed her. The accounts shared faked photographs of her supposedly cheating on her partner, with the caption, “We’ll show this to your husband.” The images, which were in fact sent to her husband, were also spammed on the Uyghur Congress livestream chat during her testimony to the tribunal.
‘Stepping into the future’
The dozens of professional experts who testified at the hearings – scholars, civil society activists, jurists and investigative reporters – rounded off the picture drawn by camp survivors and revealed snippets of information about what’s going on in one of the world’s most secretive regions. The American journalist Geoffrey Cain, who visited Xinjiang and conducted many interviews in the reporting for his recently published book “The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future,” described an environment that might have been drawn from a work of science fiction. “When I visited North Korea, I felt like I was stepping into the past,” he said, “but when I got to Xinjiang I felt I was stepping into the future.”
Cain related that beyond the familiar means for gathering information about residents – such as the use of spies, interrogations and psychological pressure – the Chinese regime also employs an advanced technological system that collects vast amounts of information about each of the region’s inhabitants. This includes shopping and consumption habits, web surfing, downloaded apps, police and court reports, employment data, physical features, images from street cameras, information from gas stations, roadblocks and schools, and checks of digital calendars and of people’s whereabouts. This immense quantity of data, which is accumulated in part with the help of new systems of face and voice recognition, is forwarded directly to local authorities, who use it in order to decide, among other questions, whom to send to the camps.
The face-recognition technology is used in the service of the regime, but is developed by the Chinese high-tech industry. Another American researcher, Conor Healy, testified that the Chinese tech company Huawei took part in developing the “Uyghur alarm,” a monitoring system that identifies and classifies faces of passersby as Han or Uyghur. Three years ago, the company sought to patent the technology. According to this testimony, other merchandising firms, such as the cloud service of Alibaba and the surveillance giant Tiandy Technologies, are also engaged in ethnic recognition. Another Tiandy product is a “smart interrogation table,” which includes a touch screen, an electronic display of evidence and a system for recording interrogations – everything that’s needed to streamline the questioning of masses of detainees.
Illiqud, who works for the Uyghur Transitional Justice Database, who was not deterred from testifying despite the harassment of the Chinese regime, presented a comprehensive report about the incarceration situation in the country. Based on interviews, leaked policy documents, photographs and satellite images, the report details the types of camps, their location, size and number. According to the data she collected, there are several types of camps: for reeducation, incarceration, pretrial detention and work camps, the latter of which are like forced-labor farms. The report states that at least 1,347,000 persons were imprisoned in the reeducation camps [according to data which is collected since 2018], at least 422,000 were incarcerated in prisons, 486,000 in pretrial detention centers and 76,000 in work camps.
Ebrakit Otarbay, 48, was an inmate in one such work camp. He was sent to sew in a textile factory, where, he related, the conditions were a slight improvement over those in the reeducation camp. The food was better, though to get a meal the workers had to sing propaganda songs praising the communist regime. Cameras filmed them throughout their working day. His testimony reveals something of the way in which forced laborers in these camps become a chain in the global fashion industry. A report issued last year showed how big fashion firms in the West that employ local Chinese firms, are actually enjoying the products of forced labor.
“Normally they do not show us the brand of the clothes,” Otarbay testified. “The clothing brand was stitched by their own people. Once they showed us a brand, it was a small towel used by Nanhang [a Chinese airline] in China. Later, they scolded us for putting on the wrong brand [i.e., label] and asked us to remove them. Then we had meetings for a whole day saying that these things should not be told anywhere else. There were cameras watching us while we were working. We have not seen [the names of] any brands since that incident. We sewed pants in addition to making pants belts. Each of us used to sew different parts. One person sews pockets, another person sews the back and another one sews other parts.” Asked by a member of the tribunal whether he was paid for his work, Otarbay laughed.
The tribunal’s work generally proceeded tranquilly, apart from isolated interference from the Chinese. During the September hearings, for example, the Chinese ambassador to Britain held a press conference in which he accused the tribunal of lying and claimed it was conducting a “pseudo-trial” and a “political manipulation aimed at discrediting China.” The ambassador also asked the British government to prevent the continuation of this “malicious behavior.” London did nothing, and as often happens, the Chinese outburst got the tribunal a few more headlines.
But what if there’s some truth to the Chinese claims? After all, if there is no official Chinese representative here, what makes the tribunal a proper judicial process? If there is no one to reply to the accusations, and if the tribunal lacks concrete authority, what meaning does it have? The most suitable person to respond to these questions, which challenge the very existence of the procedure, is the person who heads it: Sir Geoffrey Nice. In the middle of the third day of the proceedings I spoke to him in a side room off the main hall.
“The people who gathered here have no interest in the result, no special interest in the Uyghur people and no intention of making recommendations,” Sir Geoffrey said about the tribunal he established. “Our only wish is to answer a question that is not being asked by national or international bodies. We are ordinary non-specialist representatives of the general public who are investigating a subject that is not being discussed anywhere else, with the best means at the public’s disposal.”
He added, “For your readers, I am certain it will be easy to understand, without making excessive use of the example of Nazi Germany, that there were times at the end of the 1930s when information that could have been open to the public was concealed from the public by governments, by the media and even by the public’s disinclination to know. Proceedings of this sort, had they been carried out then, could perhaps have served a very good cause.”
For the sake of the historical perspective, is what you are hearing here similar to the information which might have been used to prevent the Holocaust of European Jewry?
“In a certain sense, yes. There’s no point in suggesting that comparisons close to the Holocaust can be made when, in truth, they can’t. For example, evidence about the suffering of the Uyghurs does not at present include evidence of mass killings. But when there is a failure to reveal something in time, or a lack of determination to know, or an attempt to conceal things from citizens, a procedure like a public tribunal has great value. What has changed since World War II, and even then only slowly, is that the world’s citizens are less willing to agree to silence for political reasons and are ready, perhaps, to take more part in procedures such as these and also to respect their results. The first procedure of this kind – the public tribunal on Vietnam of Lord Russell and Sartre [the British philosopher Bertrand Russell and the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in 1967] – attracted very little attention and did not have significant results. Things have progressed since then, not least because the United Nations created international criminal tribunals in the 1990s – for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – and the term ‘genocide’ entered into general use after not having been in use for a long time.”
Nice, who has taken part in three previous public tribunals, also addresses the question of the objectivity of the whole procedure and of the witnesses in particular. “I am not worried,” he says, “for the same reason that I was not worried that the Nazi hunters were almost always Jews. Would it be preferable, from the viewpoint of visibility, for the experts not to be affiliated with organizations of one kind or another? Possibly. Will we ever have experts of that kind? Probably not. It’s likely that a person who researches the suffering of a group will belong to that group or possess a strong interest in that group. I am quite sure that you will find that those who led the formal proceedings after the Nuremberg trials, as with the Eichmann trial, were all interested parties – and why not, actually?”
Do you think that a formal legal proceeding will ever be launched against China in regard to the Uyghurs?
“No one expected that the leaders of states would come to international judicial proceedings. No one expected that Burma would be taken to an international court, but then The Gambia arrived on the scene and changed that with creative legal thinking. [In 2019, the African country of The Gambia filed a case against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice over the latter’s treatment of its Rohingya population.] Of course, China is a country of vast power which wields influence over its neighbors, over other countries and over bodies such as the [UN’s] Human Rights Council, so that quite a bit of optimism is needed [to believe we will] see an international judicial proceeding actually happen. But things change. Even though there is no great likelihood of something parallel to the fall of the Berlin Wall and to the seizure and execution of [Romania’s] President Ceausescu, those things do happen. And the best way to make them happen is to do everything possible to bring the truth to light.”
The uncovering of the truth is also the ideal that is driving Aldo Zammit Borda, who heads the tribunal’s research and investigation unit. “People ask what is the point of people’s tribunals that possess no formal power or authority to punish,” says Dr. Zammit Borda, an associate professor in international law at City, University of London. “Speaking generally, as we have seen throughout history, there are countries that have great power, and their power can potentially be used not only to commit crimes within their area of jurisdiction, but also to shape the narrative about those crimes. They can forbid discussions in international bodies, so that the victims of these crimes suffer twice – once from the crime itself and a second time from the silencing of the crime, from the denial of its existence. A people’s tribunal conducting public hearings, even if it has no formal authority, is able in large measure to change and challenge that narrative. In cases where avenues for formal justice have been blocked, in the end, the victims have to choose between a tribunal like this, with the limited justice it can provide, or silence.”
But will revelation of the truth and reshaping of the narrative satisfy the witnesses who are appearing here? I ask Abduweli Ayup, an Uyghur intellectual who went through a number of camps in Xinjiang and now lives in Norway, how he felt when he stood before the members of the tribunal and told his story. “I felt that I was carrying tremendous responsibility,” he replies. “This is the place where it will be decided whether genocide is happening or not. This is a human issue, a world issue. I was afraid, but millions of people are in concentration camps and I am speaking on their behalf. I am not one person who is speaking, these are millions who are speaking. The question us: Who is listening? Who will take action?”
Ayup says he was disappointed when he saw that there were only about 50 people in the hall, when he appeared before the tribunal in June, but then recalled that millions more were watching and listening. He’s probably being overoptimistic. There was indeed live coverage of the hearings online, and there were people physically present who simply came in order to listen and to help, but they were few in number. One was Jonathan Gibson, a local, kippa-wearing 18-year-old who founded an interfaith organization called “Burst the Bubble UK.” He turned up at the hearings with several other youngsters who, together with him, organize campaigns against such wrongs as religious persecution and modern slavery. They came to support the Uyghurs’ struggle. I also spoke with Julia Granville, who came as part of a collective of psychotherapists who help witnesses process the brutal experiences they have undergone and support them through their testimonies. And occasionally people showed up who were simply curious, having heard about the issue on the news. But that’s it, more or less.
In December, the tribunal will reassemble at the Church House conference center in Westminster to inform the world of its judgment regarding whether crimes against humanity are being perpetrated in Xinjiang and whether the Chinese regime is implementing genocide against the Uyghurs. Provided, of course, that the world wants to know.
Outside the building, life goes on normally. At the entrance to the Underground station, a few dozen anti-vaxxers are demonstrating against the coronavirus vaccines. “Even one death is too many,” one of the signs says. Next to the statue of Churchill, a small man with a large bullhorn reminds passersby not to forget Jesus. Someone else, long-haired and unshaven, is demonstrating against the use of plastic bottles, and on the lawn between Parliament and Westminster Abbey a group of hunger strikers are protesting the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. They’re of different backgrounds, ages, genders and nationalities, but they’re all intermingling, and they all have one thing in common: No one is turning around to check for the enemy behind their back.
No less important than recognizing a genocide: fighting the current one
President Biden's recognition of the Armenian Genocide is an important step in the struggle against mass atrocities – genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes. But it's far from being enough and it won't do much for those who are being persecuted, discriminated against and murdered in places like the Chinese Xinjiang province, the Tigray region in Ethiopia and Myanmar.
About a week before the outbreak of World War II Adolf Hitler met with his army commanders at his Bavarian Alps headquarters. At this meeting he spoke about exterminating the Poles by mercilessly killing men, women and children. There are some who say that this speech also included the rhetorical question: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’’
That statement has served as a warning and an illustration of the famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But that’s only one reason why it’s important. Another one is that the denial of a genocide is a part of genocide itself. It conceals the crime, exonerates the murderers and erases the victims’ existence as a group.
For those reasons, last week, many praised the U.S. president for recognizing the Armenian genocide and criticized other countries, including Israel, for not doing so because of political and economic interests. As justified as the criticism may be, and as positive as the declaration by President Biden is, we should recall that despite the importance of historical memory, there are other forces that shape the present and the future. Recognition of a genocide that took place over 100 years ago is only the first step in a long journey.
This journey passes through places like Xinjiang in northwest China, the Tigray region in Ethiopia and Myanmar. In China, members of ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs are being sent to “reeducation” camps, in which the prisoners are held without trial in grueling conditions and suffer from cruel indoctrination, torture and rape. In addition to the camps, testimonies, leaked documents, satellite photos and media reports reveal a series of other steps against the population in Xinjiang: forced labor, tight surveillance, separating children from their parents and a ban on practicing Islam. There is also evidence of medical experiments, organ harvesting and forced sterilization, all almost without intervention by the international community.
In Ethiopia’s Tigray region and in Myanmar local longstanding ethnic conflicts include horrific reports. News from Tigray in the last few months included acts of slaughter, looting, uprooting the population, deliberate starvation by burning crops, and widespread rape. In this round of the conflict the perpetrators are the Ethiopian government with the assistance of forces from Eritrea and Amharic militias. In Myanmar the second half of the previous decade saw tens of thousands of Rohingya people murdered, and hundreds of thousands persecuted and expelled. Testimonies revealed horrific acts such as setting entire villages on fire and throwing their residents into the flames, acts of gang rape, and tossing infants into the river. Since the military coup in February, the situation of the Rohingya may deteriorate even further.
The sad truth is that in the short term, the recognition of the Armenian genocide won’t help the victims in China, Ethiopia and Myanmar. History teaches that acts of genocide were not prevented in Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur or Syria in the 1990s and 2000s despite the universal recognition of the most comprehensive genocide in history – the Holocaust. Nor did they take place due to a failure to recognize the Armenian genocide. Recognition is necessary for prevention, but it’s insufficient. In order to combat present and future genocides at least three additional elements are needed: facts, limits and institutions.
There’s a great deal of discussion about media and public discourse in the 21st century suffering from relativization and multiple narratives. In addition, some of the conflicts that lead to genocide are complex and hard to understand. The terrible result is that the murderers can always paint a picture in which they themselves are the victims. That is how reports are published, based on partial truths, maintaining that the Uighurs are fundamentalists and terrorists, the Rohingya are Muslim invaders and the Tigrayans themselves carried out acts of ethnic cleansing. Only undisputed facts and a wide context can counter the abundance of opinions and propaganda.
But facts aren’t enough. “They shall understand that a limit, under the sun, shall curb them all,” wrote Albert Camus in “The Rebel.” “Each tells the other that he is not God” (translated by Anthony Bower). In a world where Authoritarian leaders and their regimes aim to achieve absolute power, recognition of the past and understanding the present must lead to placing limitations. Wars will probably continue to accompany mankind for years to come. We must recognize that and place clear limitations on them.
This isn’t new – international treaties, institutions, courts and tribunals have tried for decades to place limitations and prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The situation of these institutions has never been worse, but even if they suffer from weakness, political biases and corruption, in the absence of a world power that is committed to putting an end to acts of horror, and is capable of doing so, the international institutions must recognize the past, discover present facts and place limitations. Nothing else will prevent the next genocide.