Opinion: Is what is happening in Xinjiang a genocide?

Before leaving his office in January, then United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dropped a bombshell: he declared that the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang was a genocide.

Slowly, other countries followed, with Lithuania being the latest to do so last week. Indeed, it is difficult to deny the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated against the Uyghurs by the Chinese state.

More than a million ethnic minorities Muslims are detained in internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where – according to survivors and media reports – they are subjected to political indoctrination, forced sterilization, and forced labour.

But whether this legally amounted to genocide is a different matter. 

The Genocide Convention

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which China ratified, stipulates that genocide must be an act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. The act is, contrary to the popular conception of the term, not limited to killing. It can also mean causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions calculated to bring about destruction, preventing births, and forcibly transferring children. 

Under this definition, the atrocities in Xinjiang may legally qualify as a genocide, provided that intent to destroy the Uyghurs – an extremely high legal threshold – is proven. 

The weight of this word cannot be understated. It conveys not just the mere killing of people, but the destruction of a people and all they stand for. It means depriving all that they can contribute to humanity. It implies generations of a group’s cultural and social ethos destroyed. That, according to sociologist Claudia Card, is the harm peculiar to genocide. The use of the world “genocide” to describe the crimes against the Uyghurs is therefore morally significant, more so than that captured by terms such as “crimes against humanity” or “ethnic cleansing.”

Double Standards

Yet on other atrocities, the US has hesitated to use the word. Pompeo stopped short of calling the Rohingya crisis a genocide, preferring the term “ethnic cleansing”, which carries no legal weight. On the eve of his last day in office, Pompeo remained silent over this, but chose to speak out for the Uyghurs. This is despite reports that the US State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor supported a genocide determination in the Rakhine State of Myanmar in late 2020. One the other hand, the same department concluded that there was insufficient evidence that the Uyghurs’ imprisonment amounts to genocide. 

Other atrocities led to similarly tepid results. In her book “Again and Again”, Samantha Power, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development and former US ambassador to the United Nations, stated that major genocides have yielded “few stern words” by the US.

In Cambodia, Iraq, and Rwanda, the US was slow to condemn the crimes, or never did. 

And it is not just the US that refrained from weighing in. The United Kingdom Government Ministers has maintained, on various occasions, that judgements on genocide should be left for competent courts – which will have to be given out after a genocide has already been committed, rendering the judgement useless.

Why, then, are many in the international community so quick to brand the treatment of the Uyghurs – as horrific as it is, no doubt – with the G-word?

While internal deliberation were not revealed, the basis for these decisions likely includes a political component. In other words, states would have to determine whether branding an atrocity with the G-word would advance or hinder its national interests.

On one hand, political indifference could mean risk to a country’s reputation in upholding human rights. On the other hand, speaking out could mean a swift and harsh backlash – political, economic, or otherwise – from Beijing.

As for Thailand, which interestingly enough is not a party to the Genocide Convention, the country seems very much to be taking the latter into account.

Significance of Semantics

Words matter.

The term “genocide” carries a heavy legal and moral weight as the worst crime possible to be committed by a state. It brings connotations of unimaginable horrors like those experienced during the Holocaust. When used, it should not be done so lightly. And it definitely should not be thrown around as a political tool. 

I do not purport to have the answer to whether these atrocities amount to genocide or not. But whatever its definition, states should use a uniform one that captures the weight it carries. To call the atrocities in Xinjiang a genocide while remaining silent on other atrocities not only reeks hypocrisy, but also distorts and dilutes the meaning of genocide.

Otherwise, the West may win the battle to get people to pay attention to what is happening in Xinjiang, but the victory will be a pyrrhic one.

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