Uyghur Tribunal Determination Could Change Paradigm For China Relations: Experts

While non-binding, a ruling of genocide could force states to rethink their ties to Beijing.
Uyghur Tribunal Determination Could Change Paradigm For China Relations: Experts Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Nice sits at his desk at his home in Adisham, England, Sept. 2, 2020.
AP Photo

A legal determination on whether China’s policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) constitute genocide can force states to reevaluate their ties to Beijing, experts said, a week ahead of the first hearing of an international people’s tribunal investigating reports of abuses in the region.

The Uyghur Tribunal, chaired by prominent lawyer Geoffrey Nice, will convene in London, England from June 4-7 to hear testimonies and review evidence about the situation in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since early 2017.

The two international courts that are able to make formal rulings on China’s policies in the region have no plans to take up the case. China is not a party to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and therefore is not bound to submit to a trial, while the International Court of Justice (ICJ) can only take up a case that has been approved by the United Nations Security Council, and China’s permanent membership in the Council gives it veto power over any such decision.

Uyghur Tribunal Vice Chair Nicholas Vetch said in a statement ahead of next week’s session, however, that legal bodies like his—which lack state backing and whose rulings are non-binding—can have an impact that is in many ways similar to a formal court when it comes to the situation in China.

“People’s tribunals can do, in some regard, what formal courts should be doing,” he said.

“They can provide a body of evidence. They can provide closure, and some sense of justice. And perhaps most importantly, they provide a judgment, which require states to consider how they interact with the People’s Republic of China.”

Uyghur Tribunal Chair Sir Geoffrey Nice, who led the prosecution of ex-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and has worked with the ICC, agreed that people’s tribunals can provide an important record of the truth.

“By the giving or the rendering of that truth, they may achieve some peace,” he said.

More than a dozen experts have been invited to participate in the Uyghur Tribunal hearing, including German researcher Adrian Zenz, who has published a number of reports on forced labor and abortion in the region; Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who recently documented a stark drop in the Uyghur population in the XUAR; and American anthropologist Darren Byler, who has been studying the Uyghur community for many years.

Based on evidence presented at the session and a second one planned for mid-September, as well as its own research, the tribunal is expected to issue a final verdict on whether China is committing genocide or crimes against humanity in the XUAR in December.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin holds pictures of former internment camp detainees while speaking during a news conference in Beijing, Feb. 23, 2021, in this still image taken from video. Reuters
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin holds pictures of former internment camp detainees while speaking during a news conference in Beijing, Feb. 23, 2021, in this still image taken from video. Reuters
Tribunal attacked by Beijing

After denying the camps' existence initially, China in 2019 changed tack and began describing the camps in the region as residential training centers that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.

But reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.

Former detainees, several of whom plan to testify at the Uyghur Tribunal in June, have also described being subjected to torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses while in custody.

Parliaments in Canada, The Netherlands, the U.K., Lithuania, and the U.S. State Department, have described China's actions in the region as "genocide," while the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says they constitute crimes against humanity.

Chinese officials and state media has lashed out at the Uyghur Tribunal ahead of next week’s session, with XUAR government spokesman Xu Guixiang saying Tuesday that Beijing “condemned and despised” the hearings.

“This is a total violation of international law and order, a serious desecration of the victims of real genocide, and a serious provocation to the 25 million people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang,” Xu told reporters at a briefing in the capital.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called the Uyghur Tribunal a “special machine producing lies” at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, and said its goal is “splitting Xinjiang to contain China.”

He noted that the tribunal had been established with the cooperation of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, which Beijing considers a “notorious anti-China separatist” with ties to terrorist organizations, and dismissed it as a “clumsy public opinion show under the guise of law.”

Zhao repeated official claims that former camp detainees who plan to provide testimony at next week’s session and have detailed their experiences in other international settings are “actors” and “lying speculators.” China has held several of its own conferences on its policies in the XUAR in recent months during which officials have worked to undermine the credibility of Uyghur activists abroad.

China imposed sanctions on the Uygur Tribunal in March, with Beijing saying it is one of four U.K. entities that “maliciously spread lies and disinformation.”

‘Worried about determination’

The concept of the Uyghur Tribunal began in June 2020 after WUC President Dolkun Isa asked Nice to set up and preside over an independent people’s court in order to investigate reports of abuses in the XUAR. The tribunal was formally established and began researching the situation in September.

Isa told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the WUC has compiled a significant amount of evidence of rights violations in the region since confirming the existence of the internment camp system in 2018, and that Nice had agreed to proceed with the Tribunal after reviewing it.

He said that the Tribunal’s final ruling will be “non-political and based on international law,” and therefore can be used as a basis for some nations to “adopt strict laws on China, put all sorts of embargoes on China, and investigate the crimes of Chinese leaders.”

“China’s latest slander on the credibility of Uyghur camp survivors and witnesses who will testify at next week’s Uyghur Tribunal is nothing short of witness intimidation,” he said.

“China’s attack on the independent Uyghur Tribunal before the court convenes on June 4 indicates that Beijing is extremely worried about its final determination.”

Reported by Nuriman and Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff and the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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