Max McGiffen: Finally Taking A Stand? Assessing the UK’s Response to the Uyghur Crisis

For several years, China has been enacting a policy of repression against over a million Uyghur Muslims in its Xinjiang province, including reports of forced sterilisation. These allegations have largely been met with silence by the international community, but a recent stand has been taken by the US. Undoubtedly, with the US now calling China’s treatment of the Uyghurs ‘genocide’, there is pressure on US allies to follow suit. Last week, the UK government announced new rules that seek to prevent UK companies profiting from forced Uyghur labour.

This blogpost will argue that the new rules are welcome, but do not nearly go far enough as a response to the Uyghur crisis. Instead, the Government should (i) follow the suggestions of the ‘Defending Democracy in a New World’ report issued by the China Research Group, and (ii) be bold in referring to the situation as ‘genocide’.

(i) Why the Government response does not go far enough

The government’s new measures are welcome as a first step, but are nowhere near as comprehensive as they should be. For a government that ‘talks the talk’ on human rights and emphasises Britain’s “position of global moral leadership”, there is more to be done with respect to the Uyghur crisis. The China Research Group recommends the application of sanctions against Listed Persons in the CCP (and entities controlled by them) who are complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. I believe this is the right approach. The failure to apply Magnitsky sanctions against Chinese officials for their human rights abuses in Xinjiang has been described as “painful and hurtful” by a leading Uighur activist, Rahima Mahmut.

Avoiding criticising China on this topic will have substantive repercussions for democracy and human rights.

(ii) Why ‘genocide’? The importance of language

In international crises, language matters. The international community has failed in the past to act proactively to prevent genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. I have written previously about how the use of relative language such as ‘crimes on both sides’ has risked the tacit approval of the killing of vulnerable people in Cameroon.

‘Genocide’ has been defined by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as “where acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group”. These crimes ongoing in Xinjiang include: the arbitrary imprisonment of more than one million civilians, torture of a large number of those arbitrarily detained, forced labor, and the imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement. I argue that these crimes amount to a genocide, as they are intended to ‘destroy an ethnic group’.

Concluding thoughts

On the 12th January, in the House of Commons, the Foreign Secretary gave a statement, claiming there was “a moral duty to respond” to the crisis in Xinjiang. I argue that there is such a moral duty, but that the current government response is not sufficient. If the UK is committed to liberal and democratic values, it can follow the US’s lead in declaring the situation in Xinjiang a genocide.

People take part in a demonstration in September against China’s persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

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