This weekend something unusual is going to happen. From June 4th to 7th an independent tribunal in the UK will hear evidence about human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Western China. Witness testimonies and expert opinions will be livestreamed on YouTube and key points will be shared on Twitter so interested parties can see for themselves the case being made against the Chinese government for serious violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Although the independent Uyghur Tribunal, as the committee is called, has no power or authority to sanction governments or individuals, punishment is not the point. Rather, the tribunal is seeking to work through the available evidence and give as fair and measured a judgement as possible as to whether the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is engaged in genocide against Uyghurs and other minorities. The fact that this is being done in full view of the public is significant in that it highlights how crimes against humanity are approached by the international community. The tribunal expressly leaves it to states, organizations, companies, and, importantly, individuals, how to engage with the proceeding’s findings.
The People’s Tribunal
The Uyghur Tribunal was established last September by Sir Geoffrey Nice, a British lawyer specializing in human rights, in response to a call for an independent review of allegations of genocide by the president of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa. Nice is an experienced lawyer who led the prosecution’s case against former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Nice also chaired the China Tribunal, an independent board of specialists that sought to collect testimony and issue a non-binding ruling on charges that the Chinese government was involved in illegally harvesting organs. In many ways the Uyghur Tribunal resembles the China Tribunal, stressing the impartiality of its board members and emphasizing transparency in its work, for example publishing its operational budget for public scrutiny. The China Tribunal issued an interim ruling in late 2018, and published its full findings in 2020.
Members of the Uyghur Tribunal are drawn from various backgrounds and include members of British Civil society and academia, none of whom are activists in any Uyghur cause, according to the tribunal website. These tribunal members will operate much like a jury in a court case, reviewing evidence submitted by witnesses and experts and weighing legal arguments. This work is supported by a team of researchers, legal counsel and a secretariat that will administer its work. Many of the senior personnel involved operate on a pro bono basis, while remaining operational expenses are funded by donations.
It may be tempting to dismiss a non-binding judgement by a specialized People’s Tribunal investigating a serious charge of genocide and crimes against humanity against a sovereign country. However, it bears keeping in mind that the mechanics of international justice make holding Beijing accountable for violations difficult. China is not a signatory of the Rome Statute and not bound by the International Criminal Court (ICC), while the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ) can only hear cases mandated by the Security Council, which as a permanent member China is sure to veto. In effect, this means that neither the ICC nor the ICJ can effectively hear evidence and issue a ruling on the treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities in China.
Predictably, Beijing has reacted to the establishment of the Uyghur Tribunal with fury and indignation. The Global Times has gone so far as to suggest that the tribunal is recruiting actors to act as witnesses and published infographics seeking to discredit speakers. Both the Uyghur Tribunal and Nice were included on a list of sanctioned British individuals and entities in late March. Chinese courts have also played a role in pushing back against charges of human rights abuses and genocide, with Xinjiang based firms have been suing foreign scholars, such as Adrian Zenz, for damages. Given the sensitivity with which Chinese officials react to any form of discussion on conditions in the XUAR, it seems likely that anyone involved in the tribunal’s proceedings will be in for ad hominem attacks and accusations of slander.
The Big Picture
The initial tribunal hearings of the Uyghur Tribunal come at a time when a growing number of governments have voiced concern over conditions in the XUAR. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minority people are believed to be subject to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and suppression of the cultural and religious freedoms enshrined in both the universal declaration of human rights and the Chinese constitution. Reports of intimidation, torture, forced labor, involuntary sterilization, sexual violence, and killings have increased since 2016.
Some have gone so far as to designate the treatment of minorities in XUAR as a genocide. The governments of the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, the UK, and most recently Lithuania, have adopted language that finds the treatment of Uyghurs and others meets the criteria for genocide under the terms of the UN Genocide Convention. Other countries like Germany and Italy, have had parliamentary hearings about the issue, putting out statements condemning the treatment of minorities but stopping short of invoking the term genocide. In March the European Union added four Chinese officials and one institution involved with public security administration in Western China to the list of proscribed entities, triggering a furious backlash from Beijing which sanctioned several MEPS, EU institutions, and individual researchers in response.
Activists and members of civil society have urged the international community to do more and continue to shed light on conditions in Western China. Particularly for Uyghurs and Kazakhs living abroad, many of whom still have family members in China, being outspoken brings significant personal risks. For its part, the PRC government has been aggressive and unwavering in its rejection of charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and human rights violations. Chinese officials have stressed time and again that the situation in the XUAR is an internal matter and any criticism of how the state treats its citizen amounts to a violation of sovereignty. Beijing initially dismissed claims of camps designed to sequester members of ethnic minorities from their families as ludicrous but has since admitted to creating what it calls “vocational schools” aimed at simultaneously combating extremist tendencies and poverty.
A Plurality of Voices
Accusing an individual or a government of genocide is serious, and it is understandable that many people are reluctant to commit themselves to the term. While some see the label as justified under the UN Genocide Convention, others point to a lack of evidence and an inability to prove intent or systematic killing, preferring instead to speak of legally distinct crimes against humanity or human rights abuses. Yet others may think that it is a strategic mistake to cast the plight of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minority peoples in the XUAR as genocide when Beijing is poised to double down on its policies. There is also the argument that ulterior motives have driven the charges of grave abuses against China’s government. And, of course, there are those that embrace the narrative that nothing at all is going on or in the XUAR and that there is a sinister conspiracy afoot to deny Beijing a leading role in international affairs – marginal though these they may be.
Talking about genocide and other crimes is not easy, but it is necessary. For many, the term conjures images of the horrifying industrialized slaughter of the Holocaust, and there may be a reluctance to equate conditions today with historical atrocities. But it is nonetheless important to critically think about and discuss what is happening in places like Xinjiang. While it may not be able to issue a binding verdict, the fact that the Uyghur Tribunal will be taking evidence in full view of the public means it can help inform the public and make an important contribution to the discussion.