Renewing the spirit of 2 George Yard (Part 2)

More than one million Uighur Muslims have been incarcerated and forced to work in camps – measures that many have described as modern-day slavery in China. Yet, far from offering a common front, the West has put together a patchwork response to Beijing’s policies.

Uighur woman in Xinjiang, China
Chinese authorities have detained more than one million Uighurs. Female prisoners report systemic sexual violence and forced sterilizations. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Modern-day slavery in China goes unpunished because of vested interests
  • Many find it more convenient to ignore the genocide in Xinjiang
  • Societies must understand the consequences of this inaction

This report is the second in a two-part series on human rights from GIS Expert Lord David Alton. The first part looks at the beginnings of contemporary human rights activism.

Large sums of money have always been a pretty big inducement when it comes to buying collaboration, compliance or silence. This was the determining factor in bolstering the position of the slave traders. It was also the case with many of the beneficiaries of Nazi slave labor such as IBM and Volkswagen, which even built a camp next to one of its factories to ensure a supply of workers. This form of extermination through labor is comparable to what is happening to the Uighurs and others. Think of Hugo Boss, Kodak and Siemens.

Siemens ran factories inside concentration camps, including at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen. Boss supplied the uniforms for the Hitler Youth and Waffen-SS. Today it profits from the cotton produced by laborers subjected to genocide in Xinjiang; in other words: it profits from modern-day slavery.

Political will

In 1948, it was out of the ashes of Hitler’s concentration camps that two of the most important human rights declarations emerged: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The same spirit that motivated the friends who had gathered in 1787 in 2 George Yard was at work in 1948. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who saw more than 40 of his relatives murdered by the Nazis, coined the word genocide and developed the convention. His determination to combat this ultimate violation of human rights had actually been spurred decades earlier, by the death of 1.3 million Armenians and the murders of Assyrians and others at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. He knew that Hitler’s belief that he could kill with impunity (the German leader allegedly referred to the Armenian genocide as his evidence) had paved the way for the Holocaust.

Cotton harvest in Xinjiang
Roughly one-fifth of the global cotton output comes from China’s Xinjiang region, where the Uighur workforce is submitted to human rights violations that many believe amount to genocide and modern-day slavery. Countries and companies with vested interests have been slow to protest. © Getty Images

Simultaneously, the remarkable Eleanor Roosevelt (appointed to the fledgling General Assembly of the United Nations by President Harry Truman) chaired the drafting committee of the UDHR and used her considerable skills to produce a document which enabled a weary and humbled, yet hopeful, international community to collectively express its belief in human rights. In its 30 articles, the UDHR and accompanying documents identify five categories of human rights: economic, social, cultural, civil and political – ideas rooted in basic rights and freedoms which are the birthright of all human beings. From the right to life, to a prohibition on slavery, these provisions include the principle of equality before the law, the outlawing of torture and enslavement, the right to information and expressing opinions and the right of every citizen to believe, not to believe, or to change belief.

Taking stock of where the world is today, we need to renew the spirit of Roosevelt, Lemkin and the George Yard abolitionists and recognize that human rights are under increasing attack, along with the international order represented by the 1948 edicts. While we have been pulling down statues or renaming buildings, malign forces are tearing down the architecture so painstakingly created by our forebears.

Subversive states

We may not be in a new Cold War; “Cold War lite,” some call it. But we are in a contested world order – increasingly divided into authoritarian states who abuse human rights (China, Russia, North Korea, Turkey and Venezuela being some of the most obvious) and liberal democracies who uphold the rule of law, democracy and human rights. The subversion of multilateral institutions has been accelerated by China’s use of debt bondage through its Belt and Road Initiative. The gigantic project now encompasses 71 countries and $760 billion is earmarked for its completion.

We may not be in a new Cold War, but we are in a contested world order.

As Jonathan Hillman, director of the Reconnecting Asia project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says, the Belt and Road Initiative is “a vehicle for China to write new rules, establish institutions that reflect Chinese interests and reshape ‘soft’ infrastructure.” Countries such as Pakistan now owe more than half of their foreign debt to China. There are increasing signs that debt trap diplomacy is being exploited by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to extract strategic concessions, including support for its claims on disputed territory and silence over violations of human rights.

As it increases its use of economic muscle and leverage, Beijing exports this authoritarian ideology along its silk road, running down any pedestrian who dares stand in its way. It brings to mind the unidentified protestor, known as Tank Man, who in 1989 courageously stood in front of CCP tanks that were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of pro-democracy supporters. It is nothing short of bizarre to now see China – along with Russia, Pakistan and Cuba – as members of the UN Human Rights Council. Their determination to reshape the language of human rights has become ever more apparent.

Human rights under attack

Russia and China can always be relied upon to use their veto power in the UN Security Council to prevent referrals of genocide or atrocities to the International Criminal Court (ICC, established in 1998 with the intention of giving teeth to the Convention on the Crime of Genocide) for investigation. This veto is the reason why the UN’s own report on North Korea (“a state without parallel … crimes against humanity … reminiscent of the Reich”) has never been referred to the ICC. It is why attempts to refer atrocities in Africa’s Tigray – so reminiscent of Darfur and Rwanda – have been thwarted. It is why Turkey can get away with the deployment of white phosphorus on Kurdish civilian populations in Syria and aiding and abetting Azerbaijan in its military actions against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. And the list goes on.

But, above all, it enables the CCP to ride roughshod over an international treaty guaranteeing “two systems one country” in Hong Kong; to use kangaroo courts and show trials to arrest and imprison lawyers and legislators; to threaten and intimidate the people of Taiwan; and to lock up its own citizens when they dare to question or criticize Beijing. And, of course, it has allowed the CCP to degrade the indigenous people of Xinjiang. Around one million Uighur Muslims have been incarcerated and forced to work for free in camps. Academics describe it as the world’s worst incident of state-sanctioned slavery.

Modern-day slavery in China

The President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews stated in a letter to the Chinese Ambassador: “The world will neither forgive nor forget a genocide against the Uighur people,” noting “the similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago.” Having seen a video of shackled and blindfolded Uighur Muslims being led from trains to camps, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab (whose Jewish family survived the Holocaust) has said this is “reminiscent of something not seen for a long time,” while Professor Adrian Zenz, a German scholar, describes it as “the largest detention of an ethno-religious minority since World War II” and Dr. Joanne Smith Finley, a Newcastle University academic, says it is “a slow, painful, creeping genocide.”

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has described the region as “a massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy, a no rights zone.” Escapees have provided harrowing accounts of degrading treatment – including public rape and forced renunciation of their Muslim religious beliefs. A report by Human Rights Watch details the CCP’s “mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment” of Xinjiang Muslims and says the CCP is collecting biometric data for mass surveillance. One million Uighurs have been incarcerated without trial in a network of sinister reeducation camps.

Huawei – effectively an arm of the Chinese state – is making huge profits from Xinjiang’s unique techno-totalitarianism.

The UK government says it has intelligence that “families are obliged to host Chinese officials in their homes for extended periods, to demonstrate their loyalty to the Communist party. On the streets, Uighurs and other minorities are continuously watched by police, supported by extensive use of facial recognition technology and restrictions on movement.”

Huawei – effectively an arm of the Chinese state – is making huge profits from Xinjiang’s unique techno-totalitarianism. Chinese President Xi Jinping said, as reported in a leaked document, that his officials should “show no mercy” to anyone who disobeys the edicts in Xinjiang. A CCP official said on television that their intention is to “[b]reak their lineage … break their connections and break their origins.”

The eminent international lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, chaired an independent tribunal into forced organ harvesting in China and another one, which will conclude in September, examining Uighur persecution. In June, UN experts expressed concern that Uighurs and other minorities were being targeted for organ harvesting in China. The final report of the tribunal led by Sir Geoffrey Nice had come to the same conclusion: “Forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale. … Falun Gong practitioners have been one – and probably the main – source of organ supply. … Crimes against humanity against the Falun Gong and … Uyghur … [have] … been proved beyond reasonable doubt.”

The response of the UN? Just days after 22 nations sent a letter to the President of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights protesting China’s massive detention and “re-education” program in Xinjiang, 37 other countries submitted a letter defending China’s policies.

Paying the price

Battle lines are increasingly being drawn around fundamental human rights and the institutions created to defend them. For example, the European Union recently made the welcome decision not to ratify a gigantic investment deal with the CCP following sanctions imposed on members of the European Parliament for daring to speak out about the treatment of the Uighurs.

In the U.S., the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden Administration, reflecting a rare bipartisan unity, have both declared the oppression of the Uighurs to be a genocide. So have the Canadian House of Commons, the Dutch Parliament, the UK House of Commons and others. The CCP has responded with sanctions against parliamentarians (including this writer), Professor Zenz, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC and Dr. Joanne Smith Finley, and economic sanctions against Australia for daring to call for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Meanwhile, New Zealand has said its trade with China matters more than supporting an international alliance defending human rights and naming genocide as the gravest crime imaginable.

Battle lines are increasingly being drawn around fundamental human rights and the institutions created to defend them.

Recently we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. As a young boy, Judge Thomas Buergenthal was incarcerated there and survived. He throws down this challenge to each of us: “The human mind is simply not able to grasp this terrible truth: a nation transformed into a killing machine programmed to destroy millions of innocent human beings for no reason other than that they were different. … If we humans can so easily wash the blood of our fellow humans off our hands, then what hope is there for sparing future generations from a repeat of the genocides and mass killings of the past? … One cannot hope to protect mankind from crimes such as those that were visited upon us unless one struggles to break the cycle of hatred and violence that invariably leads to ever more suffering by innocent human beings.”

In attempting to break that cycle, Ephraim Mirvis, the UK’s Chief Rabbi, wrote about his encounter with a Uighur woman who had escaped from Xinjiang: “An unfathomable mass atrocity is being perpetrated in China. The responsibility for doing something lies with all of us. … I can no longer remain silent about the plight of the Uighurs.”



Had the friends who met in 2 George Yard in 1787 seen this modern-day slavery in China, they would not have remained silent either, nor would the originators of the UDHR or the Convention on the Crime of Genocide. The question is whether we are willing to accept the economic readjustment that will result from being vocal or whether we are willing to see the rule of law and human rights – along with the institutions, values and ideas which they represent – simply wither on the vine.

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