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Interview: ‘Do they really need to be doing these terrible things?’

Geoffrey Nice discusses an independent tribunal's finding that China has committed genocide against the Uyghurs.

By Alim Seytoff 2021.12.09

British barrister Geoffrey Nice delivers the verdict of the independent tribunal assessing evidence on China’s alleged rights abuses against the Uyghur people, in London, Dec. 9, 2021.

Associated Press

Prominent U.K. attorney Geoffrey Nice, chair of the Uyghur Tribunal, delivered the panel’s judgment on Thursday that China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in its far-western Xinjiang region. The decision came after the independent tribunal assessed evidence of China’s alleged rights abuses against the predominantly Muslim minority. Nice and the panel conducted two daylong hearings in London in June and September, during which members heard testimony from experts and internment camp survivors describing a range of serious abuses, including sexual assaults, torture, forced sterilizations, coerced labor and killings. Nice, who previously led the prosecution at The Hague of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic on accusations of atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, spoke with Alim Seytoff, director of RFA’s Uyghur Service, about the tribunal’s judgment and what it means for the Uyghurs and for China. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: Today the Uyghur Tribunal with your leadership has declared that China is committing both genocide and crimes against humanity. What are the implications of the judgment?

Nice: Obviously, if a finding like that can be of use to governments in forming their decisions about what to do in relation to China, if it can be of value in the decision making of universities, businesses, and travel companies, all the other people who have to interact with China, well, that would be a good thing, too. If it would have the effect of getting China to change things, well, that would be terrific. But it would never be acknowledged as the result of our tribunal’s work, so we would certainly never know if it’s better.

Those are the possible outcomes, but I go back to the beginning. The motivation to do this was the fact that something had not been made clear in public and on the basis of evidence, so we dealt with that gap in knowledge. That’s all.

RFA: The Uyghur Tribunal has invited the Chinese government to defend its position and to provide its part of this story and evidence, but so far the Chinese government has declined. The Chinese government has never recognized the Uyghur Tribunal. Instead, it has sanctioned you and the tribunal and has attacked you personally, calling you a spy. What’s your response?

Nice: It’s a pity that they should take that line. I’ve got nothing else to say about that. I’m not concerned about that. It’s irrelevant. But it is a pity that they shouldn’t consider the alternative of being open with individuals, organizations and countries that criticize them for what they do. If they were open, especially if they were open in a way that other big countries are not open, as we explained in the judgment, they could lead the world by example to a better place. So, I’m not concerned what they may say about us or me.

RFA: China also has accused the tribunal of being a fake court, saying that it is backed by Western, U.S.-led, anti-China forces that are behind the whole charade of the court, and that the witnesses and the experts are all actors who have presented false evidence to accuse China. Has this been the case?

Nice: They can say it, but unless they support what they say with some evidence about that sort of thing, there’s nothing much I need to say response, and they haven’t supported any of those allegations by any evidence. I’ll just repeat what I said before: It’s a pity that they should do that rather than engage constructively and openly. The world would like to know what’s really happening and we’ve told them, and more openness by China will only do some good in the long run.

RFA: The U.K. government hasn’t declared that China is committing either genocide or crimes against humanity, while the U.K. parliament did declare that China is committing genocide against the Uyghur people. It appears as if the U.K. government’s position is to leave it to the courts to decide whether it’s genocide or crimes against humanity. Do you think today’s judgment by the Uyghur Tribunal will convince the U.K. government to recognize China’s atrocities against Uyghurs for what they are?

Nice: It may help them recognize it for what it is. A lot of parliamentarians here in the hall today had a press conference and were very keen to apply the judgment to force the government’s hand. But going back to your question, the government says it will only allow genocide to be found in a significant way if a judge makes that determination. But they say that knowing that there’s no judge who could ever do it. There isn’t a judge in any system that they can turn to to make that determination unless they were to try and take the PRC to the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention to allege a breach of the Genocide Convention. I don't think they’ll ever have the courage to do that.

So, they actually use this rule that only a judge can make the determination to avoid ever having to make a determination.

RFA: More than 150 countries are state parties to the Genocide Convention, and they are under legal obligation to prevent and stop the genocide. In light of the tribunal’s judgment, what should the international community do to stop China’s ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people?

Nice: Interestingly enough, though the American government itself, not just the legislature, has pronounced genocide and has done certain things such as imposing sanctions along with the EU, the U.K., and other countries, it hasn’t ever said it’s acting under its Genocide Convention duty.

Now, what is the Genocide Convention duty in a circumstance like this? That’s for a government to decide, and when it makes that decision, it has to announce to its public why it’s doing it, why it’s not doing more, or why it’s not doing less. It has to say this is the appropriate response to genocide given our duty to stop genocide from happening. The actions a government would be likely to take would include sanctions of the kind they have imposed.

But almost certainly you might think, if you were sitting in Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken’s chair and were asking yourself sincerely … what is the minimum that the United States must do to respond to this duty? It would be more than the sort of sanctions they have imposed. It would have to be something to have real effect on those committing the genocide, those responsible for it. How a government would shape those actions, I can’t really advise. It would be going too far. It’s not my job. But just to impose the sanctions they have and not to say it’s under the Genocide Convention, it’s not enough.

RFA: China is also a state party to the Genocide Convention, so what is your message to the Chinese government to stop the ongoing genocide?

Nice: My suggestion to the Chinese government … is do they really need to be doing these terrible things to achieve that which they can achieve through the immense power they already have? I can understand and even respect without any trouble their ambition to be a successful leading country and their desire to be influential around the world. All sorts of powerful countries have had that ambition, not least our little island when it was a powerful central empire and certainly the American governments. There’s nothing wrong with that ambition.

But they’re not going to achieve that ambition by disgracing themselves in the eyes of the public. And therefore, was it really necessary for them to do these things to ensure a peaceful intentive regime in Xinjiang? I suspect perhaps no. One thing they might think about is changing their approach to their own people — not least if they want to influence other people.

RFA: In the future, if the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice ever tries the Chinese government or Chinese officials who are responsible for the ongoing genocide, will the Uyghur Tribunal provide all the evidence it has gathered, and are you willing to testify as part of that process?

Nice: Certainly, we are willing to provide our evidence. We’re already aware of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s intention to take a step by preparing its kind of report, and we’ve said they can have access to our material. We’ll help them in any way we can. Indeed, all the evidence we’ve got is being called public, and it may be that we will be able to make the whole archive public.

It’s not a small task, and it needs a certain amount of funding. Of course, we don’t have any funding, so we’ve got to work out a way of creating an archive with the material we’ve got, which is many hundreds of thousands of pages of stuff. But we have every intention of making it available to everyone else.

Edited by Roseanne Gerin.


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