One of the most prominent and undoubtedly the most imminent issue on the international agenda is the genocide on Uygur Turks in East Turkestan – a province in China that is also, though less commonly, known under the name Xinjiang. At first, the Chinese government imposed strong restrictions on Uygurs, increasingly denying them to freely live their culture and religion. In order to do that, China placed cameras in people’s homes. Simultaneously, the government started to set up concentration camps, in which Uygurs are subjected to physical and mental torture. Over the last 6 years, millions of Uygurs were detained in those camps and women are subject to forced sterilisation. Moreover, China is collecting DNA samples of Uygurs, in order to better identify who is Uygur and then imprison them. This information was published in an article by the New York Times, a globally renowned newspaper, based in the United States of America. Based on the above, it becomes clear that the aim of the Chinese government is to erase the Uygurs as an ethnicity. This type of concerted action to destroy an ethnicity is commonly referred to as genocide.
Genocides, although being unmatched in their atrociousness, occur often. Looking back in history, we see that especially the 20th century was a bloody chapter of human history. For example, there were the genocides on the Herero and Nama people in Namibia and the Jews in Europe by the Germans, the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime or the Rwandan genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsis. All of these atrocities, and many more, compose the darkest of dark sides of our often disgraceful race. In order to better understand genocides, and, more importantly, to craft suitable measures to end them, it is important to establish clarity about the term. As mentioned earlier, but in more detail, genocides are a large-scale concerted acts of violence done by one homogenous ethnic group against another homogenous ethnic group. It is important to point out the aspect of homogeneity, as genocide usually results from historic grievances between ethnicities. The example of the Khmer Rouge regime is one of the exceptions, as the aim was not to wipe out another ethnicity, but they targeted non-communists among their own people. Further, it is also important to notice the emphasis on the element of large-scale concerted acts of violence, as genocides are usually executed drastically and without any other aim than to erase the counterpart. In regular wars, for example, there are many different and often competing goals on both sides. The aggressor might want to gain land, secure its border, capture strategic points, gain access to resources and so on. Once the goals are more or less achieved, both sides agree on the new situation through negotiation and compromise (the recent Karabağ War is an example of warfare in its most traditional sense). Genocides are not subject to such a code: the ruthless murder will continue until all people of the opposition are dead. This is why genocides are so horrible. Finally, there is also another element that helps us to understand genocides. In most cases, there is a grave difference in power between the involved parties. This can be either in the numbers or in the quality of the available means. For example, the Germans were outnumbered by the Herero and Nama in Namibia, since it is their home country, but due to their advantage in military technology, the Germans were able to kill tens of thousands. However, this factor alone does not amount to a genocide. When we think about the invasion of the United States of America in Iraq in 2003, we do not think about genocide there, although the war lasted over a century and cost over a million lives on the Iraqi side. Although many war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed, the other aspects of a genocide are not fulfilled, hence, the war cannot be labelled as such. Unlike popular belief, the Turco-Armenian War between 1915 and 1923 is not to be counted as genocide, either, due to the same reasons.
How Can We Help the Uygurs?
The situation in East Turkestan is already extremely difficult. Not only is the genocide already ongoing for over half a decade, but the approach by the Chinese is also highly systematic, utilising modern technology. It is comparable to the systematic persecution of Jews by the Germans in the 1930s and 1940s, as they also put high emphasis on correctly identifying Jews and detaining, torturing and ultimately killing them. The Chinese follow the same logic and they are very keen to hide all these acts. As an already politically and socially closed system, they are able to efficiently repress the flow of information going out. Much of what we know today about these concentration camps come from satellite pictures and occasional cases of leaked photos by the victims.
So, what should be the approach to end this genocide? As mentioned earlier, genocides are characterised by a grave power imbalance between the involved parties, which means that any solution must involve external help. This was also the way how most other genocides ended. Mostly, outside forces intervened at some point and ended the violence more or less effectively. In the Uygur case, this is relatively difficult, because they are subject to the oppression of the second strongest country in the world. China’s power is so great that virtually no country wants to be targeted by them economically, politically or even militarily as an act of retaliation. Further, China is not involved in a war or subject to internal instability. In such a case, a country would be less able to fend off foreign intervention, which is not the case here. On the contrary, the Chinese are stronger than ever before and any transgression of borders might eventually trigger a devastating war. However, these cannot be valid reasons for inaction – in fact, there is not a single valid reason to remain inactive.
For the Uygurs, there is hope in their ethnic roots. Being a Turkic ethnicity, they are part of a large global population of Turks. Stretching from Mongolia all the way over Central Asia to Turkey, there are in total 8 Turkic states and countless minority groups in other states, such as Russia. If these powers are combined, they can exert considerable political pressure on China. Some of the Turkic states already have a common platform for cooperation and dialogue in the intergovernmental organisation, named the Turkic Council. One way to use this structure is to quickly extent the Council’s competencies and list of members to include all Turkic states, forming a more unified front. In detail, the Council needs to extend its provisions on military cooperation by increasing each members’ financial input into the military budget, as well as introducing a more authoritative structure that forces the member states to commit their militaries to the agreed interventions. Further, they need to establish a common diplomatic organ that coordinates external action and represents the Council internationally. All the above would also foster economic, social and fiscal integration in the future, but for the imminent resolution of the crisis in East Turkestan these provisions are to be prioritised. As such, the Council is then better set to confront China and needs to force it to the diplomatic table as fast as possible. A first round will unlikely produce results and China will, in no way, confess that it is committing these crimes. If so, the Turkic Council should then turn to the European Union (EU) and Russia for help. As all Turkic states are geographically close to and economically intertwined with either Russia or the EU member states, there is a higher interdependency than there is with China. Moreover, the Turkic Council could start international public diplomacy campaigns to raise awareness of the issue and promote the common Turkic heritage. There are large Turkic minorities in Russia, such as the Tatars. Russia would have a great interest that they do not develop unfavourable views that could lead to dissent among its population. The same also holds true for large Turkish populations across Europe. This interdependency can be leveraged to gain support. This support is then utilised by the Turkic Council to gain concessions from the Chinese. The Council could most likely achieve the dissolution of the concentration camps – reparation payments are rather unlikely. Further, the Council could try to negotiate an agreement that would protect the Uygurs’ rights to freedom of expression in cultural and religious terms, while having a monitoring system in place. Also, the Council could seek to push for the extradition of the Uygurs, who could be resettled in the Turkic states. This, of course, would mean a huge diaspora and people would lose their homes. Being a Turkic territory for over 2000 years, it would also mean a hard hit for the Council and the common Turkic cause. Accordingly, this is not a desirable solution, but would increase the chances for better long-term development of the Uygur society. Finally, there is always the possibility for military intervention. Of course, no state would back the Turkic states in transgressing Chinese borders, but they would also not side with the Chinese. Regardless of China’s strength, they are politically isolated. It would mean a bloody war, but considering the military power and the potential losses China would incur, there is a good chance that they give in rather quickly or an international solution is brokered, which would inherently include the release of the Uygurs.
In one way or the other, the fate of the Uygur Turks lays in the hands of the whole Turkic world. Currently, we are very far away from that. Among all, Turkey is to be blamed for it in the first place. Being the strongest of all Turkic nations, she has done little to nothing to address this genocide, although hosting a big Uygur community. While the religiously-oriented regime is quick to gather diplomatic support to end injustice done to Muslims (see the Rohingya genocide, rights of Palestinians), the regime seems to have a blind eye for the atrocities done to its own people.
Take-Aways for other Genocides
Resolving genocides is tricky, as are all ethnic conflicts (see Azerbaycan and Armenia: The Eternal Conflict). The determination of the aggressor makes it very difficult to end the violence without violence. However, we can look at it from a tactical perspective. In every ethnic conflict, each side has other actors that are aligned with them – either ethnically, religiously, politically or in any other way. Hypothetically, we can think about Nigeria attacking Uruguay. The former is likely to receive support from African countries, while the latter is likely to be backed by other Latin American countries. This is because the parties have more characteristics that form a consensus around a common identity. Here, they would respectively invoke the feelings of identity along the lines of “Black People” and “Latino People”. As regards genocide, it is the duty of those states, that are aligned with the victim, to take action. Looking for help from the United Nations has led to great disappointments in the past. Let us just think about its inaction in Rwanda or Bosnia. Therefore, it is important for every ethnic group to have strong ties to some bigger institution, which is close to this group from an identity perspective. Ideally, genocides are prevented in the first place, but that is a whole different topic. When it comes to end an ongoing genocide, however, there is reason for hope, though it may seem hopeless at times.