Over the past week, members of China’s ethnic Uyghur minority have provided moving testimony about their persecution to the Uyghur Tribunal, an unofficial, civil society-led investigation into possible genocide and crimes against humanity committed by Beijing. Although the “people’s tribunal” is not backed by any government and its findings will not be binding on any country, the hearings play an important role in providing recognition to victims’ suffering and in strengthening the legal argument for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry or other international accountability mechanisms. As such, the tribunal serves as an important tool for civil society to move atrocity prevention efforts forward when U.N. or international court action is blocked.

A Uyghur man heading to a mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, on Aug. 9, 2019. Thousands of mosques, shrines and other Islamic religious sites have been demolished in Xinjiang since 2017. (The New York Times)
A Uyghur man heading to a mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, on Aug. 9, 2019. Thousands of mosques, shrines and other Islamic religious sites have been demolished in Xinjiang since 2017. (The New York Times)

Since 2018, human rights researchers have documented evidence of an intensified Chinese campaign to forcibly assimilate the Uyghur people that hinges on several key pillars: a mass detention and forced labor program, a sophisticated mass surveillance system, restrictions on cultural and religious practice and population control measures. More than 1.3 million people — by China’s own admission, though researchers allege more — have been arbitrarily detained in internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Rights groups have also documented the use of forced sterilization and mandatory birth control to slash Uyghur birth rates, as well as strict controls on Islamic practice, and a campaign to destroy mosques and cultural heritage sites.

In the first round of hearings of the tribunal in London from June 4-7, survivors recounted experiences of torture, rape, sterilization and forced labor in internment camps to a nine-member panel of experts formed at the request of the exile World Uyghur Congress and chaired by British lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice, who once led the war crimes prosecution of ex-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The tribunal  will meet for a second round of hearings in September and issue a final determination in December.  China’s foreign ministry has dismissed the tribunal as a “farce” and sought to discredit expert and survivor witnesses and their testimony.  The tribunal seeks to apply “international legal standards” for reviewing evidence.

Formal Obstacles to Inquiry

The tribunal is considering a question that a number of countries around the world have raised concern about, but that has yet to be taken up by an international court. The United States, alongside the parliaments of Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Lithuania, have designated China’s actions genocide. However, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor said in December she would not initiate an investigation into potential atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs on the grounds that China is not party to the court. China is certain to veto any Security Council effort to refer the situation to the ICC, as was done related to atrocities committed in Libya. While China is a signatory to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, it has submitted a reservation rejecting the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction to consider claims of genocide made against it.

In the absence of action by the U.N. and the likely inaccessibility of international courts, the Uyghur Tribunal offers an important alternative, by providing an opportunity to give voice to victims’ suffering and to consolidate a body of evidence. Allowing victims’ stories to be heard is an important first step toward providing justice to the community. Moreover, as Uyghur survivors come forward to make their stories public, their testimony is likely to elicit further evidence from victims and other sources to bolster the claims. Equally importantly, their testimony and that of expert witnesses at the tribunal will become part of a collection of evidence — a civil society analogue to the U.N. investigative mechanisms established in Syria, South Sudan, Iraq and Burma — that researchers, lawyers and members of the public can access, preserve and analyze over the years to come.

A key limitation of the people’s tribunal format, however, is that while it showcases survivor testimony so far it has been scant on Chinese government documents, testimony by Chinese officials or other evidence that can provide insight into Beijing’s policymaking processes, which are important for establishing legal intent behind China’s actions. While genocidal intent can be inferred from a pattern of conduct, and recently issued reports suggest it can be inferred from China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, further evidence of Chinese policies can strengthen or refute a claim of genocide. To be sure, such evidence is hard to come by given China’s tight control of information, but the expert witnesses in the tribunal play an important role in filling this gap. For more formal international accountability mechanisms to move forward, more work may be needed to connect the lived experiences that survivors describe to explicit policies in Xinjiang and to the decisions made by the leaders responsible.   

What Could Come Out of the Tribunal?

The findings of past people’s tribunals have strengthened awareness of ongoing human rights violations and the need to pursue accountability for crimes committed. People’s tribunals have been at the forefront of considering the presence of genocide and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia to Burma, and have evaluated allegations of human rights violations in China and Indian-administered Kashmir. In addition to legal findings, tribunal determinations have made recommendations for the establishment of international tribunals to try perpetrators and informed public debate, including in the U.N. Human Rights Council and the European Parliament.

Based on the evidence presented, the Uyghur tribunal will apply international legal standards to determine whether the Chinese government committed crimes against the Uyghurs and whether those crimes amount to genocide and/or crimes against humanity. Although the decision will have no binding legal effect, the findings may provide an important additional advocacy tool for multilateral and country-level action. The tribunal’s findings may strengthen a claim that genocide or crimes against humanity are occurring against the Uyghurs and/or illuminate areas for further investigation. Such findings could be used to press the U.N. to act and to overcome the ongoing split within the General Assembly over China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. U.N. action could include the establishment of a commission of inquiry or a fact-finding mission to conduct a U.N.-backed investigation. The decision could strengthen advocacy efforts at the country level as well, providing further evidence to inform decisions to impose sanctions and/or economic restrictions or the issuance of atrocities determinations. The decision may also be used by global corporations to inform their dealings with Chinese corporations and evaluate their supply chains to ensure they are free from forced labor.

The tribunal’s decision may also strengthen U.S. efforts to respond to ongoing atrocities against the Uyghurs. The decision could reinforce the genocide determination issued by the State Department on January 19, 2021. Reports indicate the determination was based on a split memorandum, in which State Department legal experts disagreed on whether the required elements of genocide had been proven. The tribunal may consider evidence not available at the time of the determination that may address some of the weaknesses identified in the argument that Beijing’s behavior constitutes genocide. By further illuminating the potential perpetrators and enablers of atrocities in Xinjiang, the tribunal’s decisions may also suggest additional targets for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act or the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. Broadening the reach of U.S. sanctions may improve their effectiveness in persuading Beijing to consider changing its policies toward the Uyghurs. The decision may also provide further support for pending legislation, including the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

While the outcomes of the tribunal’s work remain to be seen, it has provided an important platform for Uyghur victims of Beijing’s repressive policies to share their experiences and to work toward accountability for violations of their rights. The bravery of the victims — frequently at high personal costs to themselves and their families — is commendable and should be applauded. To recognize this bravery, and to work toward ending the ongoing atrocities, the international community should be prepared to act upon the tribunal’s findings.

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