In writing about the unspeakable mass atrocities targeting the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China, I’m reminded of the words of Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and conscience of humanity, that “silence in the face of evil is complicity with evil itself”—and that, as he would remind us again and again, “Indifference always means coming down on the side of the victimizer, never on the side of the victim.”
These words underpinned my recent testimony at an urgent two-day Canadian Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the plight of the Uighurs. The hearing, as I told the Parliamentary Committee, took place on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most brutal extermination camp of the 20th century, reminding us of horrors too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened. I also was haunted by the chilling footage that I had viewed prior to my testimony of Uighurs, heads shaven, blindfolded, shackled and herded onto trains headed for concentration camps. I do not make analogies with the Holocaust; but the graphic videos against the backdrop of what was happening were painfully evocative.
The Holocaust—and the genocides that followed, from Rwanda to Srebrenica to Darfur to Myanmar—were unspeakable not only because of the horrors but because these genocides were preventable. We knew but did not act. Likewise, with the Uighurs, we can no longer say we do not know. We know and we must act. Beijing’s mass atrocities constitute the following:
1) Mass internment in concentration camps of well over one million Uighur men, women and children as young as 13 years of age—the largest detention of a minority since the Holocaust, with survivors testifying to forced enslavement, torture, rape, disappearances and murder.
2) Massive inhumane and increasing coercive population controls, including forced sterilization, abortions, IUD insertions and injections, such that between 2015 and 2018, population growth in Uighur areas fell by 84 percent. This violates Article 2(d) of the Genocide Convention, which prohibits “imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group.”
3) Forcible separation of more than half a million Uighur children from their families.
4) State-orchestrated incitement to genocide. The Chinese government indicts Uighur religious “extremism” as a malignant tumor, which must be “eradicated,” and repeatedly issues orders to “round up everyone,” “show absolutely no mercy,” “wipe them out completely…destroy them root and branch,” “break their roots” and uproot “hidden dangers within hidden dangers.” As the Supreme Court of Canada put it in upholding the constitutionality of Canada’s anti-hate legislation, “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, it began with words.”
5) A massive surveillance state underpinning “the world’s most technologically sophisticated genocide,” as Yonah Diamond and Rayhan Asat put it in Foreign Policy magazine. Surveillance permeates every aspect of life in Xinjiang, with closed-circuit televisions, artificial intelligence, facial recognition and biometric data, all deployed to track every movement and communication and generate lists of “suspects” for detention.
6) Massive state-sanctioned assaults on Uighur memory, religion, culture, language and identity. At least 65 percent of all mosques in Xinjiang have been completely demolished or damaged, with others converted into commercial spaces.
What then can we do? We need not only to unmask and expose these crimes against humanity but also to act upon them, securing justice for the victims and accountability for the human rights violators.
• The UN secretary general should appoint a special envoy or other independent investigative mechanism with unfettered access to the Xinjiang region.
• The U.S. Congress, like the Canadian parliamentary inquiry, should make a determination that these crimes against humanity effectively constitute acts of genocide.
• The United States, Canada and the international community should invoke and implement the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, committing the international community to intervene.
• Other nations must impose what are known as Magnitsky justice sanctions targeted at individual human rights abusers—as the United States has done—on the major Chinese officials and entities responsible for these crimes. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), of which I am a co-chair, has called for all of its members to do so.
• We must sanction corporations with supply chains linked to forced Uighur labor and strengthen import mechanisms to prevent products made with forced labor from entering our markets.
• Governments should conduct reviews to monitor investment in technology companies involved in supporting the pervasive state surveillance of Uighurs.
• Governments should expedite refugee applications of Uighurs fleeing persecution.
Let there be no mistake about it: Silence and indifference in the face of evil will be complicit with evil itself.
Irwin Cotler is chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, a former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, and professor emeritus of law at McGill University.
Top image: Photo illustration by Marissa Vonesh