Human technology

China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs. The UN must do more.

Five years ago, human rights groups began sound the alarm that China was building internment camps to detain Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority located in the northwest region of Xinjiang.

Four years ago brave Uyghurs took to Western media and journalists like me started writing article after article to draw public attention to the crisis.

Three years ago, leaked papers in the Chinese government proved Uyghur claims about the government’s system of mass detention.

Two years ago, experts showed that China was also subjecting Uyghurs to forced labor and forced sterilization.

A year ago, the United States declared the crisis a genocide and President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Lawthat require importers to demonstrate that a product’s supply chain is free of forced labor, in the law.

And now, finally, the United Nations has issued a report. A report that says China’s policies “could constitute international crimes, especially crimes against humanity.” A report that adds nothing new to what we already knew about the crisis, which neglects to call the crisis what it is — a genocide — and which some experts say is watered down below enormous pressure from Beijing.

“It’s just too little, too late,” Timothy Grose, a China expert at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, told me. “The real tragedy of all this is that the UN Human Rights Council has failed to uphold its core mission, which is to protect human rights.”

The Human Rights Council still has a chance to redeem itself: in Geneva, where it is currently meeting for almost a month of debates, it could vote on a resolution formally condemning the persecution of the Uyghurs by Beijing. A group of democracies would aim to advance such a resolution. But they may not have enough votes to pass it. China has allies in the council and is itself a member.

The United Nations General Assembly, which opened this week in New York, also has a possibility of establishing an accountability mechanism for the persecution of the Uyghurs. But here too, vigorous lobbying from China could make this difficult to achieve.

Difficult or not, unless world powers succeed in taking Beijing to task, the recent UN report can only underline a horrifying fact: The world has no real plan to stop the ongoing genocide in China. Some Uyghurs are at the point where they wish the world would just face up to this harsh fact, rather than pay lip service and raise their hopes again and again.

“We had the illusion that the world would do its best to prevent China from committing this genocide,” said Tahir Imin, a Uyghur scholar based in the United States who believes many of his relatives are in the camps. “But the world has no plan to stop this genocide. It doesn’t happen. Governments should say this clearly. Stop the genocide or admit you won’t.

Is China too big to fail?

You might think that it is impossible for the governments of the world to stop the genocide in a country as powerful as China, which has veto power in the UN Security Council. But that’s not necessarily true. Experts and advocates point out that governments have taken extraordinary measures recently when it comes to other powerful countries, such as Russia. They could theoretically do the same with China.

“I think it is possible to stop China if we had coordinated the efforts of governments, multinationals and individuals,” Grose said. “If the world community really wanted to, it could put enough policies in place – as we saw immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine, where business with Russia came to a standstill.”

Rushan Abbas, a Uighur activist in the United States whose sister has been detained in Xinjiang for four years, drew a similar parallel. “China has no place on the UN Human Rights Council. Get rid of them. It’s an immediate action we can do,” she told me. “I mean, there was a vote and they got rid of Russia.” (UN suspended Corps Russia in April after the invasion of Ukraine.)

Such a reputational blow, combined with severe sanctions from coalitions of countries and massive corporate and consumer boycotts, could prompt China to reconsider its Uighur policy. So why hasn’t the world made a bold, coordinated strategic effort?

“I don’t think it’s China can not be shut down – but we are not willing to pay the costs of China’s shutdown,” Grose said.

China is a huge market. Its ability to manufacture products at lower cost and its abundance of cheap labor make it invaluable to international companies. “These are all things that have made governments around the world very wealthy,” Grose added. “Now we see the limits of what liberal democracies want to do to stop the violence, when the way to stop the violence is to have it affect your own pocketbook.”

Im agrees. “The world could stop it, but they don’t want to stop it. They don’t have enough courage or political will to do that,” he told me. Far from ready to assume economic losses, the West continued to sell surveillance technologies to China and import products made by Uyghur forced labor.

“The world doesn’t seem to have any plans to stop it – because the world benefits,” Abbas said.

She wants Western nations to realize that, even if they benefit economically in the short term, continuing to ignore Beijing’s human rights abuses can cost the West dearly in the long run, if its authoritarian style of government spreads.

“We voluntarily give up the future of the free and democratic world,” Abbas said. “Freedom is not free. If we want freedom, we must stop buying ‘Made in China’.

What the world can still do to help Uyghurs

If governments are unwilling to do everything possible to end the genocide, there are still things they – and we as individuals – can do.

One is make it easier for the Uyghurs who have already left China for get asylum in countries like the United States. “We cannot do anything for the people in our homeland. But we can at least offer a somewhat stable life to the Uyghurs who are already here and who have applied for political asylum,” Abbas said, adding that their applications and interviews should be expedited.

Doing a better job of enforcing Uyghur law on the prevention of forced labor would also help. Even though US law is supposed to prevent this, products tainted by Uyghur labor – such as red dates – still end up in stores, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project. The European Union also aims to start banning products made with forced labor, an encouraging sign.

Another way for individuals to help is to support efforts to preserve Uyghur culture in the diaspora. As China tries to erase their culture at home, Uyghurs in the United States try to ensure that their children will learn the Uyghur language, for example at the Ana Care and Education school in Fairfax, Virginia.

Other organizations, such as the Campaign for Uyghurs, help young Uyghurs in large population centers like Turkey. Many of these young people relied on their parents’ help to pay for their education or housing, but with so many parents in internment camps, it is difficult to make ends meet.

“While we may not be able to change what Beijing is doing,” Grose said, “there is still a way to help Uyghurs in a very meaningful and immediate way.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!