Protestors take part in a demonstration organized by the World Uyghur Congress, the International Campaign for Tibet, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, the Belgian Uyghur Association, and the Tibetan community in Belgium, Brussels, Oct. 1, 2019, the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China.
The complaint will be submitted under the South America nation’s universal jurisdiction provisions.
By Roseanne Gerin
Two Uyghur advocacy groups are preparing to submit a criminal complaint to an Argentine court with international jurisdiction, laying out alleged crimes committed against Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in China’s far-western Xinjiang region.
The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), based in Washington, and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), headquartered in Munich, Germany, have hired London-based barrister Michael Polak to file the complaints with the Federal Criminal Court of Appeals in Buenos Aires, the groups said Tuesday.
“Uyghurs have desperately been seeking accountability and justice but faced numerous challenges along the way, such as the fact that currently international courts are unable to prosecute the criminals responsible for this genocide,” WUC President Dolkun Isa said in a statement. “It is therefore critical that a country like Argentina uses its universal jurisdiction to hold the perpetrators of the Uyghur genocide to account. Argentina must lead the way.”
The lawsuit comes five days after an independent Uyghur Tribunal in London ruled that China committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Its finding was based on evidence from survivors, witnesses and experts on the region. The tribunal has no state backing, however.
Argentina’s universal jurisdiction provisions enables courts to investigate and prosecute crimes under international law, such as crimes against humanity or genocide, regardless of where they have taken place.
Polak, who specializes in criminal, human rights and international law, is chair of Lawyers for Uyghur Rights, a group of attorneys working to protect the rights of Uyghur people.
“The use of universal jurisdiction provisions is the next step in the path to justice for the Uyghur people and to hold to account those who are ordering the most horrendous international crimes against them,” Polak said in a statement. “Throughout history we have said never again a number of times and here, yet again, we have a group that is being attacked simply because of their ethnicity and religion by a powerful state.”
China has held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and others in internment camps since 2017. It has dismissed widely documented evidence — including testimony from former detainees and guards describing widespread abuses in interviews with RFA and other media outlets — that it has mistreated Muslims living inside and outside the camps.
After the complaint is filed, an appointed judge will review it along with submissions from a public prosecutor to decide whether to open a case. If a case is opened, an investigation would begin, and the WUC and UHRP would have to submit evidence showing international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and torture are occurring in Xinjiang. With sufficient evidence, the judge can indict defendants, issue arrest warrants and send the case to trial.
This could be a historic opportunity for the Uyghur people because it would mark the first-time that the evidence of the atrocities against the Uyghurs is presented in a court.
The Argentine appeals court in November ordered an investigation into the international crimes committed against the Rohingya people by the Myanmar military under the universal jurisdiction principle, after overturning a lower court ruling rejecting a request for an investigation by the U.K.-based Burmese Rohingya Organisation, known as BROUK.
Forced labor bill advances
A brutal military crackdown on the Muslim Rohingya in 2017 left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 others across the border and into Bangladesh where they have since lived in massive displacement camps.
“The Argentinian universal jurisdiction provisions provide a golden opportunity for justice for the Uyghur people and it is clear, especially given the recent ruling in the Rohingya case, that the Argentinian courts are willing to apply their progressive laws to achieve justice for individuals facing serious repression no matter where that is taking place,” Polak said.
The criminal complaint is expected to be filed in early February 2022. The legal team will hold a press conference in Argentina with Uyghur internment camp survivors and international experts to discuss the Chinese state’s systematic repression of the Uyghurs and what nations can do to stop it.
As the legal action was announced, lawmakers in Washington advanced the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which will block the import of goods into the U.S. produced by forced labor in Xinjiang and authorize sanctions on foreign individuals and entities found responsible for rights abuses.
Passed in the House of Representatives last week by a vote of 428 to 1, the legislation had cleared the Senate unanimously on July 15, the two versions were reconciled with Tuesday's unanimous House vote, and are expected to clear the Senate and be sent to President Biden for signing into law.
“The ongoing genocide perpetrated by the Chinese government against the Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities is a challenge to the conscience of the entire world, which requires forceful and urgent action by the international community," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, will continue to condemn and confront the CCP’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and in the region and hold it accountable. If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights any place in the world," she said.
The White House welcomed the vote.
"We agree with Congress that action can and must be taken to hold the People’s Republic of China accountable for genocide and human rights abuses and to address forced labor in Xinjiang," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
She pointed to U.S. policies in response to Xinjiang rights abuses, including visa restrictions, sanctions, export controls, and import restrictions, and the release of a business advisory.
"The administration will work closely with Congress to implement this bill to ensure global supply chains are free of forced labor, while simultaneously working to on-shore and third-shore key supply chains, including semiconductors and clean energy," added Psaki.