"The charge should never be made lightly."
Is the Chinese government engaged in genocide against the Uighur people in the Xinjiang region, as claimed by the United States, United Kingdom and a few other countries?
In the twilight of the Trump administration last year, then Secretary of State Michael Pompeo charged that Beijing had mounted genocide against the Uighurs in the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang in China's eastern flank, but without offering any concrete evidence.
The Biden administration hurled the same allegation this year, also without giving any proof.
In a recent commentary, two eminent academics, Jeffrey D. Sachs and William Schabas, pointed out that while the US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices this year accuses China of genocide in Xinjiang, there's little to make the genocide charge stick. Instead, the report raises such issues as lack of freedom of expression, refugee protection and free elections, "which has scant bearing on the genocide charge."
"There are credible charges of human rights abuses against Uighurs, but those do not per se constitute genocide," the authors said. "And we must understand the context of the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, which had essentially the same motivation as America’s foray into the Middle East and Central Asia after the September 2001 attacks: to stop the terrorism of militant Islamic groups."
The two professors recalled that China experienced repeated terrorist attacks in Xinjiang during the same years that America’s response to 9/11 led to repeated US violations of international law and massive bloodshed. "Indeed, until late 2020, the US classified the Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist group, battled Uighur fighters in Afghanistan, and held many as prisoners. In July 2020, the United Nations noted the presence of thousands of Uighur fighters in Afghanistan and Syria."
For Sach and Schabas, "The charge of genocide should never be made lightly. Inappropriate use of the term may escalate geopolitical and military tensions and devalue the historical memory of genocides such as the Holocaust, thereby hindering the ability to prevent future genocides. It behooves the US government to make any charge of genocide responsibly, which it has failed to do here."
According to the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948, genocide is the intentional physical destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The definition enumerates five acts that must be perpetrated for genocide to take place. These are: 1) Killing members of the group; 2) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 3) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 4) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and 5) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The US State Department’s report on China says there were “numerous reports” of killings, but that “few or no details were available,” and cites only one case, a Uighur man detained since 2017 who died of natural causes.
Sachs and Schabas explained further: "Technically, genocide can be proven even without evidence that people were killed. But because courts require proof of intent to destroy the group physically, it is hard to make the case in the absence of proof of large-scale killings. This is especially true when there is no direct evidence of genocidal intent, for example in the form of policy statements, but merely circumstantial evidence, what international courts refer to as a 'pattern of conduct'."
What might constitute evidence of genocide in China? The State Department report refers to mass internment of perhaps one million Uighurs. If proven, that would constitute a gross violation of human rights; but, again, it is not evidence, on its face, of intent to exterminate.
"UN experts are rightly calling for the UN to investigate the situation in Xinjiang. China’s government, for its part, has recently stated that it would welcome a UN mission to Xinjiang based on “exchanges and cooperation,” not on “guilty before proven.”
"Unless the State Department can substantiate the genocide accusation, it should withdraw the charge. It should also support a UN-led investigation of the situation in Xinjiang. The work of the UN, particularly UN Human Rights Special Rapporteurs, is essential to promote the letter and spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," they said.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the House of Commons has also alleged that genocide is taking place against Uighurs and others in northwest China. A Member of Parliament said genocide meant intent to "destroy in whole or in part" a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. "All five criteria of genocide are evidenced as taking place in Xinjiang," the lawmaker said, with detainees subject to "brutal torture methods, including beatings with metal prods, electric shocks and whips."
But the British government opposed a motion in Parliament for the country to take action as genocide is a matter for "competent national and international courts after consideration of all the available evidence."
Responding to this, the Chinese embassy to the UK said: "The unwarranted accusation by a handful of British MPs that there is 'genocide' in Xinjiang is the most preposterous lie of the century, an outrageous insult and affront to the Chinese people, and a gross breach of international law and the basic norms governing international relations… China strongly opposes the UK's blatant interference in China's internal affairs."