The Guardian, 19 January 2021
Below is an article published by The Guardian. Photo Reuters
It took a long time for leaders to notice, longer to condemn, and longer still to act. It took time for researchers to amass evidence of China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang – from mass detention to forced sterilisation – given the intense security and secrecy in the north-west region. Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, believed to have held about a million Turkic Muslims, before describing them as educational centres to tackle extremism. But the hesitation by other governments also reflected the anxiety to maintain relations with the world’s second-largest economy.
The US, on Donald Trump’s final day in office, became the first country to declare that China is committing genocide. The administration has already targeted officials and issued a ban on any cotton or tomato products from the region. On Tuesday, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, described a “systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state … forced assimilation and eventual erasure”. A more cautious report from a bipartisan US Congressional commission said that China had committed crimes against humanity and “possibly” genocide.
Mr Pompeo’s statement is a parting shot, made with some cynicism. (Not all criticism of human rights abuses, however merited, is motivated solely by human rights concerns; Mr Trump reportedly told Xi Jinping that the camps were “exactly the right thing to do”.) But the announcement is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Joe Biden’s campaign called it genocide months ago. While Mr Trump broke with the previous approach to China, the US has undergone a bipartisan shift, forged primarily by Beijing’s actions – not only in Xinjiang but also in Hong Kong, its handling of the pandemic and in international relations more broadly.
The same change is evident in the UK, as evidenced by the sizeable Conservative rebellion in parliament on Tuesday, in which an amendment to the trade bill was narrowly defeated by 319 to 308. The genocide amendment originated in the Lords and was backed by all opposition parties, as well as a broad coalition outside parliament, including the Muslim Council of Britain and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. It proposes that the UK high courts could determine whether genocide is taking place, potentially leading to the revocation of trade deals. The Foreign Office argues that genocide determinations are complex matters better made by international institutions – knowing full well that in reality they will not consider them in this case, and that this is not a requirement of the Genocide Convention. The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, struck a far stronger tone than before when he spoke recently of “torture and inhumane and degrading treatment … on an industrial scale” in Xinjiang. But the remedies he put forward – requiring firms to do better on due diligence – were feeble.
A genocide finding is an extremely high bar: it is unclear whether a court would agree that Chinese actions passed it. It could not address Britain’s continuing sale of arms to Saudi Arabia despite its grotesque record, nor the recent agreement with Egypt, said by campaigners to be seeing its worst human rights crisis for decades.
China – whose spokespeople have described “the so-called ‘genocide’” as “a rumour deliberately started by some anti-China forces and a farce to discredit China” – has shown itself increasingly impervious to international opinion.
But at the very least, it must be ensured that western businesses do not profit from abuses such as forced labour. The willingness to say that human rights matter, and not only when it is convenient for the UK to do so, is important. MEPs too have promised to focus on them in their scrutiny of the new EU-China investment treaty, although Anglophone countries are taking a stronger stance towards Beijing in general. The political ground internationally is shifting. But measures can only hope to have an impact if like-minded nations act together and support each other.
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