Sir Geoffrey Nice QC knows an atrocity when he sees one.
He prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic for genocide and has been an expert on international human rights and humanitarian law ever since. He’s been involved in investigations into the Rohingya genocide in Burma, crimes against humanity in North Korea and allegations of forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience in China.
Now the 74 year-old British barrister is taking on one of the 21st century’s most egregious human rights tragedies: the persecution of the predominantly Muslim Uighurs in China. Earlier this month he announced the formation of the Uighur Tribunal, an independent people’s tribunal that will determine whether China’s actions meet the legal definition of genocide.
A people’s tribunal is a body set up to do what governments and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations refuse to do unless convenient: establish the truth. Initiated by civil society and with no enforcement mechanism, it has nothing more than moral authority. But in an age when that is such a scarce commodity, it has considerable value. Its judgement may not lead to action – but it can remove almost all excuse for inaction.
Past people’s tribunals have been modelled on the 1966 inquiry into America’s actions in the Vietnam War co-chaired by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. They have covered atrocities in Iran, Kashmir and the 1965 massacres in Indonesia and Burma. So what is the evidence which the Uighur Tribunal will assess?
In recent years credible reports have emerged that the Chinese Communist Party regime has turned the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region – known to Uighurs as East Turkistan – into a vast gulag. At least one million, perhaps up to three million, Uighurs and other Muslims are incarcerated there, subjected to horrific forced labour, sexual violence and torture.
Uighurs not yet sent to the camps are subjected to an Orwellian surveillance state that monitors their every move, or transported to other parts of China for slave labour. Religious freedom is denied and acts of piety, such as fasting during Ramadan or praying, are punished. Uighurs have reported being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol.
Most horrifying of all, a campaign of forced sterilisation has targeted 80% of Uighur women of childbearing age. A courageous Uighur doctor told ITV last week that she had personally conducted at least 500 to 600 operations on Uighur women, including forced contraception, forced abortion (even in the last two months of pregnancy), forced sterilisation and forced removal of wombs. On at least one occasion, she said, a baby was still moving when it was thrown into the rubbish. Others report killing babies by injection if they survive late abortion.
Leaked high-level Chinese government documents last year speak of “absolutely no mercy”. China’s state media has declared that the aim in this crackdown on the Uighurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins”. As the Washington Post put it in an editorial, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”
In July, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged that “gross, egregious human rights abuses are going on which are “reminiscent of something we have not seen for a very long time”. But he stopped short of calling it genocide, emphasising that one had to be “careful” about using the term.
He is right – “genocide” has a specific legal definition and should never be used lightly. But being “careful” shouldn’t mean doing nothing.
Calls on the international community to take action have so far failed to elicit a response. In June over 50 United Nations Special Rapporteurs called on the UN to establish an investigative mechanism into human rights in China, but until now that has not materialised.
In July the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales published a paper setting out steps the international community could take once an independent investigation has been conducted. Last month 76 faith leaders from all major religions, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, called for investigation and accountability.
So now civil society – and the Uighur diaspora in the form of the World Uighur Congress – have given Sir Geoffrey and his team one clear, specific task: to answer the question as to whether or not the alleged crimes against the Uighurs amount to genocide.
Whatever their conclusion – and we must not prejudge it – it is noteworthy that the Jewish community is already comparing the Uighur tragedy with the Holocaust. That is remarkable, for Jews usually – and understandably – view such comparisons as profoundly sensitive, regarding the Holocaust as entirely unique in history.
So for the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, along with many Jews, to make that comparison speaks volumes. In a letter to the Chinese ambassador in London, she said that nobody could see the evidence and fail to note what she describes as “similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded on to trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps”.
Holocaust denial is a crime in many countries, but as the film Denial – about historian Deborah Lipstadt’s legal battle with Holocaust denier David Irving – shows the struggle to prove even indisputable facts in court is not necessarily easy. But the effort is worth it; the truth must be told.
The Uighur Tribunal’s work gets underway now, and once it has delivered its judgement, and if it does end up concluding genocide or crimes against humanity have occurred, there will be no more excuses. No one then can say they didn’t know.
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