Canadian Parliament Votes to Recognize Uyghur Persecution as Genocide

Canada’s House of Commons voted 266-0 on Monday to recognize China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as genocide, making it the second country in the world after the United States to make the designation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet abstained from the vote, however, reflecting the government hesitancy to further elevate tensions in the strained China-Canada relationship. A last-minute amendment to the motion also saw MPs overwhelmingly vote in favor of calling on the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Winter Olympics out of China “if the Chinese government continues this genocide.” At Canada-based Global News, Emerald Bensadoun reported on the vote:

The Liberal cabinet’s abstention came on the heels of an already-strained relationship between Canada and China, intensified by the December 2018 arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the behest of the U.S. government and the arbitrary detentions of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in what has been widely viewed as retaliation.

[…] Ahead of the vote on Monday, Conservative MPs Michael Chong and Garnett Genuis were joined by Uighur community members at a virtual teleconference in calling for the federal government’s support of the motion, saying unanimity would send a strong signal to China.

“We can no longer ignore this,” said Chong, the party’s shadow foreign affairs minister.

[…] Kalbinur Tursun, a woman who had survived a Uighur camp in Urumchi, China, called on the federal government to recognize what she described as “genocide” perpetrated by the Chinese government. [Source]

The designation has received strong public support and endorsements from influential voices in Canada, including from the Prime Minister’s own special advisor for Holocaust remembrance, who said prior to the vote that he felt confident that what was happening in Xinjiang met the test of genocide. The vote is also a win for rights groups internationally who have been urging Western governments to designate the label. When the U.S. State Department made the designation on the last day of the Trump administration, experts criticized the timing for seemingly politicizing the designation. But Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has stood by the label, and on Wednesday the State Department again reiterated its commitment to the designation.

Lawmakers in the U.K. have also been making moves to force the government towards recognizing the treatment of Uyghurs as genocide. A formal legal opinion published in the U.K. earlier this month concluded that there was “a very credible case” that the Chinese government is carrying out genocide against the Uyghur people.

In parliament, ministers from the Labour Party alongside rebel Conservative MPs have tried to force a vote on a “genocide amendment” to a recent trade bill that would empower U.K. courts to decide whether a country was committing genocide. As in Canada, the U.K. government has been reluctant to use the term “genocide” to describe the atrocities in Xinjiang. In recent weeks, it has sought to hinder the amendment via parliamentary procedure, forcing the bill to go back and forth between the two houses of parliament as lawmakers continue to fight over the best way to handle the issue. The government has sought to bring attention to the issue in other ways. This week, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab urged China to give “urgent and unfettered” access to U.N. investigators in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Still, while recognizing the treatment of Uyghurs as a crime against humanity, some voices have expressed doubt about the appropriateness of calling the atrocities in Xinjiang “genocide.” The Economist this month published an article headlined “‘Genocide’ is the wrong word for the horrors in Xinjiang”, arguing that “just as ‘homicide’ means killing a person and ‘suicide’ means killing yourself, ‘genocide’ means killing a people.” But Donald C. Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University, wrote a forceful rebuttal to The Economist’s argument:

The definition of the Genocide Convention deserves, it seems to me, at least some initial deference. It was the product of a lot of thought, and has been endorsed by the more than 150 governments that have signed and ratified the Convention. Article II(a) says that “killing members of a group” is genocide, and paragraphs (b) through (e) set forth the other crimes that the drafters and over 150 governments thought should also go under the same name.

[…] Words mean what people in the relevant language community use them to mean. “Genocide” is a word that was specifically created by a lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, and adopted by the international community to serve a particular purpose. (See Philippe Sands’s excellent book on the subject.) The Genocide Convention did not take an existing word and add its own gloss to it. It created and defined the word for the first time. To argue that genocide means or should mean something other than what was intended by those who created the word and introduced it into the language requires some pretty strong support. In offering only a naïve and fallacious theory of language in support of its own definition, the Economist does not provide it.

Finally, the confusing part: The Economist seems to be saying that we must embrace its narrow definition of genocide because of the consequences of using the Convention’s definition. The article states that to refuse to engage with China—for example, on issues such as climate change—is to endanger the economy and the planet. That’s a reasonable stance. But the article seems to think that applying the label of genocide means we can’t engage with China on these issues. To me, that doesn’t follow. If China is big and powerful and can affect our fate, we have to deal with it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call a spade a spade. Is the Economist really saying that mass killing would mean we shouldn’t engage with China on, say, global warming? Or that mass sterilization should be treated as significantly different? [Source]

In Canada, the genocide designation was followed by more calls for government sanctions on China. The Conservative Party’s shadow foreign minister Michael Chong called on the government to impose a “more effective ban on imports” from Xinjiang and targeted sanctions “to punish those overseeing the genocide.” Last month, Canada and the U.K. both announced they would ban imports from Xinjiang produced with forced labor. This week, the Washington Post’s Eva Dou, Jeanna Whalen, and Alicia Chen reported that recent bans on Xinjiang cotton have begun to have an effect on fashion industry supply chains:

What’s happening now in the fashion industry is rare in the history of global trade: a multibillion-dollar supply chain splintered almost overnight over a human rights issue.

Just a year ago, companies “were saying it’s impossible” to stop buying textiles with Xinjiang cotton, said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington-based advocacy group. “You can’t leave. Or if you could leave, it would take three to five years to even execute such an exit.”

[…] Nate Herman, senior vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said U.S. brands were working to remove Xinjiang cotton from their supply chains but that the process is slowed by the pandemic.

[…] Herman said he has heard of about a dozen shipments stopped by CBP since the ban last month. CBP declined to confirm the number but said it’s actively enforcing the measure and that detentions of shipments “are expected to grow.” [Source]

This week, newly analyzed data on the China’s birth rates by province have suggested a marked and unnatural decline in the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.

For a historical perspective on the genocide in Xinjiang, Sean R. Roberts, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, published an article in Foreign Affairs titled “The Roots of Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang”:

The period of reform under Deng Xiaoping that gained steam following the death of Mao in 1976 held a good deal of promise for the Uyghurs. Beijing tentatively adopted a strategy of partial decolonization in Xinjiang. Deng’s close associate Hu Yaobang, the general secretary of the CCP from 1982 to 1987, spearheaded liberalizing reforms in the region as he did elsewhere in China. He called for many of the Han migrants in Xinjiang to return to their hometowns and advocated for unprecedented cultural, religious, and political reform. The government allowed previously shuttered mosques to reopen and new mosques to be built. Uyghur-language publishing and artistic expression exploded. And Hu even suggested making the region more autonomous within the Chinese system of governance, mandating that the leaders of the region come from the indigenous ethnic groups and be allowed to cultivate their own culture and language in local state institutions. This aspiration for greater inclusion of ethnic minorities fit well with Hu’s overall vision for democratization and liberalization.

But Hu’s hope for a more autonomous Uyghur region and for a more democratic China was never realized. Conservatives in the party purged Hu in 1987, blaming his more liberal policies for stoking student agitation throughout the country. The crackdown on the mass student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989—which sprang up partially in response to Hu’s ouster—signaled an end to the era of political reform. The event that truly sealed the fate of the Uyghur region, however, was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. China inaccurately viewed campaigns for ethnic self-determination as the driving force behind the dissolution of the Soviet Union and acted to ensure that China did not suffer a similar fate.

Throughout the 1990s, the CCP deployed numerous so-called antiseparatism campaigns aimed at snuffing out signs of agitation. The state saw Muslim piety as akin to a call for self-determination and targeted religious individuals. It also arrested numerous secular artists and writers. These aggressive campaigns involved significant state violence—mass arrests, torture, and executions. Occasionally, they also sparked violent retaliation from Uyghurs. Despite that sporadic bloody conflict, there was no organized Uyghur militant movement in the region, no genuine threat of secession, and no reason to believe that Xinjiang merited such heavy-handed treatment. [Source]


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