Friday, February 19, 2021

Chinese treatment of Uyghurs: genocide or not genocide?

It has been rather heavy weather listening to Justin Trudeau prevaricate about whether or not the Chinese treatment of their Uyghur (Uighur, Uigur) minority in Xinjuang state amounts to genocide. Granted, the use of the word is not to be taken lightly, as Trudeau points out, but still...

There is no shortage of media reports about what is happening in Xinjiang: mass incarceration in concentration camps ("re-education centres", as China would have it), forced enslavement, torture, mass rapes, disappearances, murders, forced sterilizations and abortions. The list goes on. It certainly looks, and probably smells, like genocide.

This is not just a nice matter of sematics: to be branded as a country guilty of gencide is about as bad as it gets in international relations terms. The UN''s Genocide Convention defines genocide as "acts committed with an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group", including killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting conditions aimed at destroying the group, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children from one group to another.

A Liberal-dominated House of Commons sub-committee concluded back in October 2020, that all of this did indeed constitute genocide as it is understood under the UN Genocide Convention. Former Liberal justice minister and the government's special advisor on Holocaust remembrance and anti-semitism has confirmed more recently that what is happening in Xinjiang meets the test of genocide in his respected opinion.

Most countries have issued statements condemning China''s treatment of the Uyghurs. The exceptions include a group (including Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines) that is financially beholden to China, and of course Russia, which merely says the direct opposite of anything the West says as a matter of principle, and a group of ex-Soviet states (Belarus, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan) that just parrots whatever Russia says. But only the USA has gone so far as to publicly label it as genocide, both under President Trump and President Biden. 

Canada - like so many other countries that have expressed their outrage at the conditions in Xinjiang, but have fallen short of actually calling it genocide - has yet to do so officially. Now, though, a Conservative motion on the issue will come to a non-binding vote next week. The Conservative, NDP and Green opposition parties have all come out unequivocally in declaring the Chinese practices to amount to genocide, so the vote is sure to succeed. 

Prime Minister Trudeau, though, Is being much more careful in his statements on the matter: "When it comes to the application of the very specific word 'genocide', we simply need to ensure that all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed in the processes before a determination like that is made... It's a word that is extremely loaded". Many people think that Trudeau is being way too careful with his words, but it's not quite as simple as that.

But it's one thing to make these kinds of declarations as an opposition party and quite another to be the party in power that will be saddled with the responsibility for official decisions made. It is the governing Liberal Party that will have to deal with China, not the Conservatives, safe in opposition. 

And make no mistake, there will be repercussions from China for such a vote. You only have to look at the arrest of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on trumped-up charges 802 days ago in retaliation for Canada's arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. China would be quite capable of executing the two Michaels in retaliation for such an international embarrassment as a vote of genocide, or of kidnapping other Canadian citizens. Such an eventuality would be on the heads of the government, and specifically on Justin Trudeau. The economic fallout would also certainly be heavy, although that would be more easily justified.

So, yes, I can say that it is genocide. The opposition parties can say it is genocide. Even the USA can say it is genocide. But can Canada?


The vote on whether or not China is committing genocide in Xinjiang resulted in a resounding "yea", to the tune of 266-0. So, no-one voted against the motion, but a lot of MPs abstained (there are 388 MPs in parliament in total), including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the whole of the Liberal cabinet. However, some 70 Liberal MPs did vote for the motion, in a free vote, and arguably this sets an important, and possibly dangerous, precedent, and sends a reasonably unequivocal message to China. This marks the first time a legislative body has declared the Chinese treatment of its Uyghur population to constitute genocide, and so in some respects it goes further than the USA, which has just limited itself to comments and opinions of some major administration figures. UPDATE: Since then, the Dutch parliament has also passed a very similar non-binding motion.

The Canadian vote is non-binding (i.e. just for show), and does not commit Canada to any concrete actions, although the extent of the majority suggests that SOMETHING should be done. Canada's membership of the UN Convention on Genocide means that they cannot just deal with a genocidal country on a business-as-usual basis. A last-minute amendment to the motion calling for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be moved from China was also passed, albeit with a smaller majority. But it remains to be seen what Canada will feel obliged to do in concrete terms. And, of course, what China does in response...

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