In Focus: The Uyghur Human Rights Project

Xinjiang Source, 6 April 2012

Xinjiang Source recently spoke to Henryk Szadziewski, manager of the Uyghur Human Rights Project; a Washington DC-based organization which seeks to raise awareness of the plight of Uyghurs in China.

XS: Firstly, how did you become involved in the Uyghur human rights movement?

HS: Thanks for the chance to explain what UHRP does- it is great there are forums such as Xinjiang Source that help to promote understanding about Uyghurs.

I first visited the Uyghur region in early 1991 when I was studying Chinese at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The Uyghurs I met on that trip shared the many challenges they faced under Chinese rule in whispered conversations on long-distance buses, over plates of laghman or in their homes.

In the summer of 1991, I returned to Leeds University to complete my degree in Modern Chinese Studies with a conviction to go back and learn more about the region and the people. Soon after graduation, I secured a teaching position at Kashgar Teachers College and lived in Kashgar from 1994-1997. This opportunity to experience life in the region gave me an up-close view of a number of human rights abuses the Uyghurs endured daily.

My parents were political refugees from Communist Poland and their stories about how totalitarianism demoralized freethinking people resonated as I spent more and more time in Kashgar. While dramatic incidents in the region grab the headlines, it is the persistent state intrusions into simple day-to-day decisions we take for granted that explains general discontent among Uyghurs.

I earned a graduate degree specializing in economic, social and cultural rights in the UK. I was then employed by the Uyghur Human Rights Project as their Manager to help document the human rights abuses that continue into the present day.

XS: What does the Uyghur Human Rights Project do on a day-to-day basis?

HS: We have a small staff (three full timers), so the short answer is everything that is expected of a non-profit organization. UHRP staff spends a lot of time responding to requests from and networking with the media, academics, writers, filmmakers, human rights activists, government officials and the general public on any number of human rights issues (this interview is a good example!).

UHRP puts a lot of time and effort into research by reading academic papers, NGO materials and government reports, evaluating print and broadcast media in Chinese, Uyghur and English, as well as examining any new extended writing or film. UHRP also seeks out primary sources of information from Uyghurs whenever possible; however, given the current political environment in the region, we have to be discreet when conducting interviews. We fact check our work as far as possible before going public.

UHRP issues press releases to highlight pressing developments and sends these out to its mailing list and posts them online. All staff members are experienced in giving media interviews and are often asked to give presentations at conferences or at universities, as well to testify before congressional or parliamentary bodies across the globe. What underpins all of this activity is the nuts and bolts of running a successful non-profit. While it may not be glamorous work, we pride ourselves on an efficient administration.

XS: What are the main aims and objectives of the UHRP?

HS: Our stated goals are:

“UHRP is a human rights research, reporting and advocacy organization. The organization focuses on promoting human rights and democracy for Uyghurs and others living in East Turkestan.”

We find we do a lot of educational work. The issue of Uyghur human rights is little understood across a broad range of forums, so we work hard to produce and distribute thoroughly researched and documented evidence of human rights abuses in the region. We are taking our documentation work into Mandarin (we already do extensive research in Mandarin) and hope that this will create more awareness in the Chinese community of the problems facing Uyghurs. Given the resources and influence at the Chinese government’s disposal and our modest organizational capacity, we have our work cut out to challenge official narratives.

XS: Have you sensed an increased awareness of the Uyghur human rights issue in recent years? Is the world listening, or is it still a battle to be heard when faced with the ‘official narratives’ that you mention?

HS: In my experience, I have noticed an increased awareness of Uyghur human rights issues in the past two decades. Human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regularly issue reports and press releases on issues of concern. The annual reports of the U.S. Department of State, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom have all shown greater coverage of human rights violations against Uyghurs.

An encouraging development has been growing interest among Chinese democrats inside and outside of China. When Uyghur journalist Gheyret Niyaz was imprisoned to 15 years imprisonment in 2010 for little more than exercising his right to freedom of speech, Chinese writers and scholars signed an open letter calling for his release. Charter 08, a manifesto calling for political reform in China, included provisions calling for an open-minded approach to settling disputes with non-Han Chinese people. Prominent Chinese dissident Yang Jianli among many others is a strong supporter of Uyghur human rights advocates.

China’s global influence and disposable resources appear irresistible to some nations. It is not so much that the world is not listening, but that parts of the world choose not to listen, particularly those states forcibly repatriating Uyghur refugees. Of course, the CCP can exert its influence most effectively inside China. In politically sensitive areas, this means pervasive controls over information. Such conditions make it difficult for journalists to independently verify details given by Chinese official sources. In many cases, the only narrative that immediately emerges is the official one and this is frequently reported in deadline sensitive media articles on Uyghurs. It takes a lot of ingenuity to circumvent the control of information and the fear Uyghurs have of speaking to journalists about specific incidents or the general situation.

XS: One of the main problems with the Uyghur human rights movement has often seemed to be the lack of focus caused by the large number of separate groups and organizations. How closely do you work with the World Uyghur Congress and with other Uyghur activist groups?

HS: We work closely with the World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur organizations representing their communities at the national level. The ‘lack of focus’ charge needs reconsideration and is often leveled to belittle the efforts of Uyghurs outside of China. It is true that debate exists among Uyghurs regarding strategy and goals, but it seems strange to criticize Uyghurs for having this debate considering Uyghur aspirations toward democracy and the inability to have these conversations in China. What should be remembered is that Uyghurs are organizing themselves, participating in democratic debate and offering peaceful solutions to egregious human rights abuses in their homeland. This level of political engagement among Uyghurs in China is not permitted under Chinese administration.

Uyghur communities in exile are dispersed across several continents and Uyghur groups in exile have proved themselves effective in organizing transnational trainings, conferences and events. This would not be possible without a high degree of professionalism and is a reminder of how far Uyghur organizations have come. The logistics behind UHRP’s report on refugees in Europe is a further example of increasing sophistication. UHRP researchers relied upon the coordination of national organizations in four separate countries to enable them to complete the task of giving attention to this important issue.

XS: The UHRP was founded after a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy. The NED has often been criticized for meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, and indeed one of its founders has stated that “a lot of what we do was done 25 years ago covertly by the CIA.” How would you respond to critics (such as the Chinese government) who would argue that accepting this money brings into question the moral legitimacy and/or motivations of the organization?

HS: You will have to ask NED and the CIA on the specifics of what they do and don’t do! To clear things up, UHRP does not ‘accept’ money from NED. Every year, we go through a rigorous grant application process that is assessed by NED’s Board of Directors. UHRP has a clear mission statement, and UHRP appreciates NED’s vital contribution as we strive to achieve our mission. NED only supports nonviolent pro-democracy and human rights groups, which explains our continuous funding since 2004. I will let our findings on human rights abuses in the region, as well as the findings of a number of other human rights entities, help your readers determine whether before questioning others’ moral legitimacy, the Chinese government should be concerned about its own.