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Canada’s failed approach to reports of China’s ongoing Uyghur genocide

Satellite images show a build up of over 250 concentration camps. Chinese census data show nearly 1.3 million Uyghurs have been sent to “reeducation and transformation centres” from 2014 to 2019. And reports of forced sterilization of close to 80 per cent of Uyghur women.

May 29, 2021

By Talha Hashmani

For years, reports coming out of the Xinjiang province in China have pointed towards an ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs – one of China’s many ethnic minorities. And yet, when faced with a stream of news reports, survivor testimonies, and mounting evidence, the Canadian government continues to opt for inaction rather than address concerns of genocide.

But what does “genocide” mean?

According to Article II of the United Nations’s Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, it’s defined by any of the following actions committed with the intention to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups:

  1. Killing members of the group
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

“Canada has been speaking out regularly on the troubling reports that we’re seeing come out of the Xinjiang province about the treatment of Uyghurs,” says Omar Alghabra, a federal cabinet minister. “Canada has also been speaking out about other reports of human rights violations in China, whether it is what’s happening in Hong Kong and the undermining of democracy there. Whether it’s the treatment of minorities – other minorities in China – and certainly that includes the reports that we’re hearing about the treatment of Uyghurs.”

But many feel that the government isn’t doing enough. This was apparent when many federal cabinet ministers opted to refrain from voting on a motion in the House of Commons, brought forth by Conservative MP Michael Chong, that acknowledged China’s actions as a genocide. 

Part of the motion read:

“In the opinion of the House, the People’s Republic of China has engaged in actions consistent with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 260, commonly known as the ‘Genocide Convention’, including detention camps and measures intended to prevent births as it pertains to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims…”

Members of parliament unanimously approved the motion to acknowledge China’s treatment of Uyghurs as a genocide. 

But when asked why he and other cabinet ministers did not vote on the motion, Alghabra said that for the government there is a process that must be followed before using a highly legal term as “genocide”.

“There’s a process for the government to follow for the recognition of genocide, and this process requires third-party validation,” says Alghabra, echoing statements made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in response to the Liberal government’s reluctance to call China’s treatment of Uyghurs a genocide. “The challenge for third party validators and international organizations is that China has not been allowing monitors [entry].”

Mehmet Tohti, Executive Director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project based in Ottawa, says that there are other sources of evidence that validate the reports of genocide against the Uyghur population. According to him, it is easy to prove that China is committing acts of genocide through “mounting evidence, irrefutable accounts, satellite images, and internal Chinese documents”.

Currently, Tohti says that Chinese internal documents reveal detailed information about the forced sterilization of close to 80 per cent of Uyghur women in some places across East Turkestan. He also points to satellite images that identify more than “253 concentration camps”.

Tohti also says that according to Chinese census data, close to 1.3 million Uyghurs have been sent to what the Chinese government calls “reeducation and transformation centres” between 2014 to 2019.

Uyghur persecution, says Tohti, began around the time that China announced its Belt and Road initiative – a plan to extend Chinese investment into foreign countries through land corridors that connected China to Central Asia, Eurasia, and other parts of the world. “China’s government decided to seamlessly achieve its imperial dream by using this Belt and Road initiative as attractive slogans. They decided to eliminate the Uyghur population in order to have full control of that key landmass,” says Tohti.

“It is an unfortunate situation that [the Canadian government] has not yet accepted the Uyghur genocide,” says Tohti. According to him, as one of the signatory countries of the 1948 Genocide Convention, Canada has a responsibility to stop a genocide from taking place, to punish those responsible, and to protect the victims.

On March 12, 2021, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development released a report titled The Human Rights Situation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China. The committee proposed 15 actionable items that the Canadian government could act on to address the Uyghur genocide. The committee also called on the government to put a ban on products made by Uyghur forced labour.

But the first step, says Tohti, is for the Canadian government to acknowledge that a genocide is taking place.

Michael Chong, the Conservative MP who brought forth the motion to the House of Commons this past February, says that the Canadian government’s decision to abstain from voting shows an “appalling lack of leadership”.

“Recognition is the first step towards preventing the continuation of a genocide,” says Chong. “You can’t take action to stop a genocide if you are not willing to recognize what’s taking place.”

According to Chong, the Liberal government failed to uphold its obligations under international law. He also says that the government has not yet introduced effective measures. However, he does agree that the government has taken at least some measures such as announcing sanctions on four individuals as well as the Xinjiang Construction and Production Core – an organization that Chong says is closely affiliated with China’s military and controls a lot of the economic activity in the Xinjiang province.

But Chong says that the government needs to do more. An example of an effective measure that Chong highlights is the banning of products being imported from the Xinjiang province. “There is evidence that, as part of this genocide, the Uyghur Muslim minority is being forced to pick cotton and produce tomatoes.

“These reports come from organizations like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a reputable Think Tank based in Canberra, Australia. They come from satellite evidence of the Xinjiang province. They come from investigative journalists from reputable news organizations like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, BBC – and so many others that have documented with video and photos. They come from survivor accounts. From testimonies provided to democratic legislators. From survivors and people who have escaped from that part of China.”

On the topic of the government’s current response to reports of genocide, Chong says the problem is that “China is not going to allow independent investigators unfettered access to Xinjiang to conduct an investigation. China’s not even allowing investigators unfettered access to discover the origins of the coronavirus that started this global pandemic.”

Chong says the Conservative party has its own plan of action to address the reports of genocide. “We would immediately take actions on a range of files to make it clear to the Chinese government that their ongoing human rights abuses and commission of genocide are unacceptable. We would take immediate action to ban the import of products that have been produced using forced labour… We would immediately suspend payments to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and withdraw Canada as a member of the bank. And we would sanction officials responsible for the violation of human rights in China.”

But Canada’s relationship with China is politically complex. And many are worried that the Conservative party’s stance on the Uyghur genocide may just be a political ploy. That assertion, Chong says, is completely wrong.

“We have taken strong positions on a variety of foreign policy issues. We’ve been vocal about issues around the world and calling on the government to take action. China is clearly one of the top issues in foreign policy for Canadians,” says Chong. “Canadians are telling us that they want the government to take a much stronger stand on China.”

But as domestic and COVID-19 issues take center stage, fears over Canada’s stagnant position on the Uyghur genocide persists. “There’s no doubt that the pandemic has created less global attention on what’s happening right now in China,” says Alghabra. “But that does not mean that our commitment, our desire, and our willingness to speak up on this issue and to continue to find ways to address it has stopped.”

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