Lessons on genocide from Xinjiang and Gaza

Mar 1, 2024
Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal aera in Gaza City on October 9, 2023.

Days before the International Court of Justice’s initial ruling late last month that found there was a plausible risk of genocide being committed by Israel in Gaza, the United Nations Human Rights Council conducted its “universal periodic review” of China’s human rights record.

China’s abusive treatment of Uyghur and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang province—which many governments around the world, including both U.S. administrations under Donald Trump and Joe Biden, have officially called a genocide—was the central focus. In 2022, a long-awaited report by outgoing U.N. High Commission for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet determined that China’s “arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of perhaps more than a million people in Xinjiang “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Of course, the Biden administration has taken a different view on the question of genocide in Gaza. “The charge of genocide is meritless,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said of the case against Israel at the ICJ, brought by South Africa. White House spokesman John Kirby repeated those talking points but went even further, calling the charges “meritless, counterproductive and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever.” Even after the ICJ’s ruling ordered Israel to abide by provisional measures to prevent genocide in Gaza, given what the court called a “real and imminent risk” of violations to the rights of Palestinians under the Genocide Convention, the Biden administration rejected the court’s judgement. Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and France have replicated American behaviour by condemning genocide in Xinjiang while ruling out its possibility in Gaza. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, for example, parroted Washington by calling the ICJ’s case against Israel “completely unjustified and wrong.”

Despite a clear U.N. legal definition of genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention—based on “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such”—why is it that many countries condemning genocide by China are simultaneously defending Israel from such charges, while many of those condemning Israel are also defending China? Do so many countries, in fact, have starkly different views about genocide, the “crime of crimes, the darkest of humanity’s inhumanity”? Why this genocide Rashomon? Comparing events in Xinjiang and Gaza not only illuminates this hypocrisy and double standard, but reveals the hole at the heart of the supposedly rules-based international order.

Gaza and Xinjiang are located on opposite sides of Asia. Despite their geographic distance, historically both Silk Road crossroads were cosmopolitan centres of trade and religious exchange, with ancient histories and diverse populations. Their formative history in the mid-20th century is defined by colonialism. In 1948, after nearly three decades of Zionist settlement of Palestine under British colonial auspices, war and the mass displacement of some 750,000 Palestinians led to the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1949, following decades of minimal influence in the region by the Republic of China and the rise of the Eastern Turkestan Republic in the 1940s, Xinjiang was annexed by the Chinese Communist Party as part of the People’s Republic.

In subjecting the native people of Palestine and the Uyghur region to occupation, colonisation and settler-colonial projects, the new states of Israel and the People’s Republic of China were each seeking what they saw as redemption and relief: from the Holocaust of Jews in Europe and a “Century of Humiliation” in China. New occupiers of the land appealed to ancient history to justify policies that undermined the rights of indigenous populations to live in their historic homeland, in the case of Palestinians, or to live free as Uyghurs, in Xinjiang.

Resistance, sometimes violent, led to state repression, which produced more resistance in a cycle that lasted decades. State repression was often justified in the name of fighting terrorism or religious extremism. Ironically, these colonial situations took root and expanded during the era that historians call “decolonisation” in the second half of the 20th century.

Today, Uyghurs in China and Palestinians in Israel are, at best, second-class citizens. Between one million to two million Uyghurs are held in internment camps and prisons across Xinjiang, many for so-called “reeducation” in an ominous echo of the concentration camps of World War II. More than two million Palestinians are trapped in besieged and blockaded Gaza, and three million more Palestinians live under apartheid rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. An estimated six million more Palestinians living as permanent refugees in diaspora are unable to return home, like the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs similarly scattered around the world.

In both Israel and China, state authorities, in justifying their repression, have looked down on Palestinians and Uyghurs as backward people supposedly incapable of self-government. Yet both states have also embarked on what seem like deliberate efforts to erase the culture of the Palestinian and Uyghur peoples, respectively, by targeting intellectuals, professors, artists, poets and journalists, as well as razing universities, religious structures and historical sites.

There are also, of course, critical differences. Xinjiang, a vast region spanning some 620,000 square miles with about 25 million inhabitants, is more than 4,000 times larger than Gaza. China has displaced Uyghurs from prime lands and ancient neighbourhoods in central Kashgar, the historic Silk Road city in far western China, but unlike the Palestinians, Uyghurs have not been driven out en masse from their historic homeland. Although prison camps have certainly resulted in more deaths of Uyghurs, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Xinjiang has not seen mass killings like those of Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli forces, which prompted South Africa’s case to the ICJ accusing Israel of violating the Genocide Convention.

In addition to the mass internment, the key distinguishing feature of Uyghur persecution is birth suppression. Through forced sterilization and implanting of IUDs, China could reduce the Uyghur population by up to 4.5 million people within 20 years, according to researchers, in the name of what Chinese authorities call “population optimisation”—a clearly colonial ambition to make the region ethnically like the rest of Han China. Article 2 of the Genocide Convention specifically recognises “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” as an act of genocide. The Uyghur Tribunal, an independent tribunal established in the U.K. and chaired by Geoffrey Nice, who was lead prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milošević, invoked this fact to conclude that China was engaged in a policy of genocide against the Uyghurs.

While the hypocrisy of the U.S. and other Western countries backing Israel has been glaring, quickly condemning one genocide but refusing to even acknowledge the possibility of another, large parts of the Global South are guilty of hypocrisy, too. At the height of China’s Uyghur persecution, the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation issued a statement at a meeting of foreign ministers in 2019 that “commend[ed] the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens.” Arab regimes with close ties to Beijing have been complicit in China’s Uyghur repression, publicly greenlighting the Chinese government’s efforts.

More recently, South Africa has parroted China’s talking points about Uyghurs. In December, the same month that South Africa filed its case to the ICJ to defend Palestinians from the risk of genocide under Israeli bombardment, its ruling African National Congress praised Beijing for its “great progress in human rights” in Xinjiang, including what it called “remarkable achievements” in reducing poverty among Uyghurs. Even Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has endorsed Beijing’s propaganda, dutifully saying during a visit to China, where he was seeking economic aid, that its policies toward Muslims in Xinjiang have “nothing to do with human rights and are aimed at excising extremism and opposing terrorism and separatism.”

Double standards abound. Norway is one of the few countries that has actually decried both situations, in Gaza and Xinjiang.

Clearly geopolitics, business interests, domestic politics and other such supposedly “pragmatic” considerations have inflicted too many political leaders with a cynical blindness to mass suffering, leading them to violate the global norms they rhetorically claim to uphold. The concept of universal human rights falls apart when it isn’t applied equally and consistently across the board.

When governments clearly fail to uphold international law, and instead selectively invoke it when it suits their interests, how should concerned citizens respond? We should not despair. Instead, these governments should be publicly exposed, vociferously challenged and voted out, for the sake of a better world, including a “rules-based international order,” where the rules apply to all.


Republished from (DAWN) Democracy for the Arab World Now, February 23, 2024

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