Staying silent in the face of China’s crimes is immoral and untenable
by Dolkun Isa
Feb 21, 2022
Women decorating a grave in an Uyghur graveyard in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images
My story is that of millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic people who are suffering at the hands of a brutal Chinese regime. In 2017, when I lost all contact with my loved ones in my homeland of East Turkistan (which China calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), I did not know if it would be the last time I heard their voices.
Even though I was lucky enough to escape China’s persecution back in 1994, I did not forget the plight of my people. Continuing my activism in exile has cost me dearly. In 2018, my mother died in one of the camps, and in 2019 I learned my father had passed away under mysterious circumstances. The Chinese authorities have furthermore handed lengthy prison sentences to my two brothers, in retaliation for my activism. But my story is not unique.
Over the past few years, the Chinese government has embarked on a programme to erase the Uyghurs as an ethnically and culturally distinct people. As documented by organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, it has arbitrarily detained millions of Uyghurs in 21st-century concentration camps, subjecting them to torture, rape, sexual abuse, malnutrition and extremely unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. The entire region, which has seen the destruction of thousands of mosques, shrines and graveyards, has been turned into a police state infamous for its intrusive surveillance apparatus, as extensive research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and others has exposed.
The long list of China’s crimes against the Uyghur people further includes the mass sterilisation of women and a state-run programme of forced labour, snatching Uyghurs away from their communities to manufacture products that end up on the shelves of Irish consumers. Leaked Chinese government documents, such as the China Cables and the Xinjiang papers, leave no doubt that this genocidal program has been orchestrated and carried out with the close knowledge and involvement of the most senior government officials, including president Xi Jinping.
The international community is starting to realise the nature of these egregious crimes. The United States government, as well as eight national parliaments (US, UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechia, Lithuania and France) have recognised China’s actions for what they are: crimes against humanity, and genocide. Most recently, this was reaffirmed by the independent London-based Uyghur tribunal, which heard dozens of witnesses and reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence before passing its legal judgment.
But there remain governments who choose to watch these genocidal crimes unfold in silence and conveniently prefer trade relationships over the lives of millions of innocent people. Such a position, which the Irish government justified by saying it “raised concerns with China in bilateral and multilateral contexts”, is no longer tenable. The evidence of what is happening to the Uyghur people is beyond dispute.
Anyone who still thinks that staying silent in the face of China’s atrocious crimes will save them from harm or retaliation is sorely mistaken. By now, the Irish Government should be aware that silence or behind-the-scenes diplomacy will not change China’s behaviour. The three-year detention of Richard O’Halloran and the initial advice of the Irish authorities not to go public to “avoid making matters worse” should serve as a fresh reminder.
For the Uyghur people, matters could not possibly get worse. As Uyghur birth rates are declining and children, who have been taken away from their families and placed in state-run boarding facilities, grow up void of their ethnic identity, the very future of the Uyghur people is at stake. The need for meaningful action has never been more urgent. It is high time for the Irish Government to fulfil its moral and legal responsibilities, and take steps to end the ongoing Uyghur genocide.
This plea should be timely, as Ireland is currently serving on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), along with permanent member China. When Ireland was seeking election to the UNSC, human rights were a key pillar of its campaign. Heralded as “a clear indication of Ireland’s standing internationally” by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, the then taoiseach Leo Varadkar vowed to “promote our shared values of peace, justice and human rights” during Ireland’s two-year term.
Though it is halfway through that term, and set to leave the UNSC at the end of 2022, it is still possible for Ireland to live up to its commitment to put human rights at the centre of the Security Council’s agenda. The Uyghur people are looking to the Irish Government to do the morally right thing while it is still uniquely situated to make its voice count.
Ireland’s action at the UNSC must be complemented by other initiatives. Binding due diligence regulations accompanied by an import ban mechanism are needed to ensure Irish companies are not profiting from Uyghur forced labour. Furthermore, Ireland must push the European Union to sanction additional Chinese individuals who play a leading role in the genocide. Finally, it must do more to welcome Uyghur refugees, who are often rendered stateless in the face of Chinese requests for extradition.
For both of my parents it has already been too late. But for millions of other Uyghurs there is still hope, however slim. Uyghurs count upon the Irish Government to take a stand in support of our fundamental rights and freedoms.
Dolkun Isa is the president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and vice-president of the Unrepresented Nations & and Peoples Organization (UNPO). A former student leader of pro-democracy demonstrations at Xinjiang University, he fled China in 1994 and sought asylum in Europe, where he has scine been advocating for Uyghur human rights