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Never Again? : How Genocide Became Law


BY: Sonia Agougou



In August 2018, an American representative revealed that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination received credible reports that over a million ethnic Uighurs Muslims had been held in re-education camps in the northwestern part of China. As a part of China’s war on terror, declared in 2014 against the Uighur Muslim people in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, the Chinese government opened “Vocational Education and Training Centers” in its northwestern region in 2017, where reportedly over a million Muslims have been indoctrinated along with other minorities. 


Many testimonies were gathered from former prisoners. They detail physical and psychological torture, rape, harassment, starvation, and suspicious disappearances. Most importantly, detainees were brought into camps without any legal procedure.  It is easy to conclude that there are blatant human rights violations happening in these camps. Many basic human rights guaranteed by the UN Human Rights Charter, such as the right to life and security (article 1), not being subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (article 3), not being subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile (article 9), the entitlement to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of the person’s rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against them (article 10), the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance (article 18) were ignored in these camps. 


Following these reports, the United Nations has issued many calls to action. However, this has not stopped the Chinese government from violating human rights in Xinjiang. 


These camps have been operating outside the Chinese legal system; detainees are being sent to the camps without trial nor conviction and are being held in administrative detention. At the end of 2018, the Chinese government wrote these camps into law as “Vocational Education and Training Centers.” However, the legislation’s wording indicates China’s intentions. The legislation’s definition of extremism is also very broad. Notably, bad behaviours that are associated with extremism include refusing to watch state TV or listen to state radio. It can even encompass having a beard or name that would be considered abnormal. This is alarming. Mass detention is being justified on the grounds of national security. 


From a legal point of view, it is interesting to see how obvious human rights violations can be considered “law.”


In July 2019, 22 countries issued a statement calling for an end to mass detentions in China and expressed concerns over widespread surveillance and repression. China has denied all these allegations, and criticized other countries for  “politicizing human rights issues.”


Regardless of how true the allegations of abuse and torture are, these camps are fundamentally wrong and must be stopped immediately. China is actively disguising camps as vocational centers whose goal is to “counter terrorism”, when they are actually instruments of ethnic cleansing. The mentality around the creation of these camps revolves around the belief that the Communist Party of China and Han Chinese culture represent superiority and refinement, while Uighur culture is barbaric and uncivilized. This bastardization of Uighur culture threatens the cultural identities, livelihoods, and the lives of Uighur Muslims. 


When words such as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are normalized so they no longer provoke the world to act, we know we have reached a low point for basic human rights. Have we become so desensitized that we no longer feel the need to do anything? How has the situation in China unfolded the way it has? 


Aside from multiple statements made by the United Nations, some countries have begun asking for real change. Notably, the United Kingdom has urged China to give United Nations observers immediate access to the camps in Xinjiang. In addition, in June 2020, U.S President Donald Trump signed the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020” into law to punish China for its treatment of Uighurs. 


But what more can we do? How can our governments stop ethnic genocide in China? 


Countries must unite and push for China to uphold its international obligations and commitments to respect human rights. And China needs to face consequences via sanctions from multilateral institutions. For instance, a government could pass legislation restricting purchases of goods made in Xinjiang. This would be more than adequate, considering the fact that there is a growing amount of evidence pointing to the fact that the Uighur Muslims being held in the camps are also put through forced labour. By showing that goods coming from this region are produced with forced labor, it would shift the burden to importers. They will need to prove that their purchases conform with the law. Moreover, a mass of global voices may make Beijing finally realize that it cannot persecute an entire ethnic group without serious consequences to its international standing. 


We need to end detention without lawful charge, trial, and conviction. This is not a political issue. This is a human issue. This is about basic human rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is ethnic cleansing. It is not a “mass-killing on the spot” type of genocide; it is a slow and painful one. The call “Never Again” has never been so pertinent. And it is time to use it as a universal call concerning all of humanity. 



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