08 Oct Witness After Witness, Hundreds Reveal the Atrocities of China’s Concentration Camps
One after another they took the witness stand, and in soft voices described what they endured in the camps China has built to incarcerate its Muslim citizens. A report from the tribunal that convened in London to decide one question: Is genocide being perpetrated against the Uyghur people?
LONDON – “It was one of the darkest, most tragic days of my life,” the witness stated, referring to her arrest in March 2018. “There were already four big buses at the gate when I arrived. Some people had children, and police officers took the children away by force and took them to another bus to be sent somewhere else. As soon as you enter, there are two armed guards standing on the left and right. They have a machine that scans people. In another room, there were two police officers who searched everyone, and they ripped off all their clothes. An old woman was standing in front of me, about 70 years old. They tore off her skirt, leaving only her underwear. She tried to cover her breasts, the policeman did not allow her to do that… Her hijab was also viciously ripped off. I can’t forget that scene to this day. I didn’t have time to take my earrings off, they pulled them off so viciously that my ears started bleeding.”
The speaker was Tursunay Ziyawudun, 43. She gave her testimony last June before a “people’s tribunal” in London that was established last year to investigate the policy that the Chinese regime has been carrying out for years against citizens of the Uyghur minority in the region of Xinjiang.
Ziyawudun’s account of her imprisonment makes for unbearable reading. She talked about female prisoners disappearing at night, some of whom did not return; about injections and pills that she and the other inmates were given regularly, which caused the disruption of the menstrual cycle, hallucinations and general confusion. There were also cases of brutal violence and rape by police. “I have no words to describe the inhuman cruelty of the violence,” she testified, adding, “I was raped by three of them together. I remember it very clearly. I can’t cry and I can’t die, I must see them pay for this. I am already a walking corpse, my soul and heart are dead.”
The descriptions of these atrocities, recounted time and again by the hundreds of witnesses who shared their stories, either in writing or in appearances during the tribunal two sets of open hearings are consistent with the allegations that have been voiced against China for some years. Human rights organizations and Western parliaments maintain that the Chinese regime is committing serious crimes against Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, in the country’s northwest. According to the allegations, the Chinese have coercively incarcerated more than a million persons under harsh conditions in “reeducation” camps, where they have subjected them to medical experiments, brainwashing, torture and rape.
In addition, the Chinese leadership is accused of subjecting the population in the region to forced labor, of attempting to destroy the Uyghur culture and language, and of effectively turning the area as a whole into a vast prison, which it monitors with the aid of advanced technologies. And beyond even these outrages, human rights activists allege that the regime is also carrying out coerced abortions, separating children from their parents and murdering prisoners in order to harvest their organs.
Nonetheless, China is not paying a price of any sort. No international court is conducting proceedings against Beijing, the United Nations Security Council has not condemned its government, most countries continue to maintain normal diplomatic relations with China, and corporations worldwide haven’t stopped doing business with the regime. The Chinese, for their part, lash out against anyone who raises the subject, claiming that it is China that is being subjected to a campaign of vilification and fabricated propaganda, the aim of which is to harm the country.
The reasonable individual in the West, then, confronts a dilemma: Is this a case of a political campaign being waged against China through a cynical use of the suspicions often harbored about Beijing? Or are we witnessing a crime of historic dimensions to which the international community is responding with incomprehensible indifference? The organizers of the Uyghur Tribunal, an extraordinary civilian procedure, are out to discover the truth once and for all. The tribunal is intended to address the following questions: Is China perpetrating a crime against humanity, and have the Uyghur people become the victim of genocide?
These serious accusations against China are being addressed not in the International Criminal Court in The Hague or at the United Nations in New York, but in a medium-size auditorium in London. The tribunal held two four-day hearings this year, in June and in September, and plans to present its conclusions in December. The witnesses who testified before it are individuals who succeeded in escaping from China – and in overcoming their fear that it will avenge their testimony by harming their relatives. The only wish many of them have, it was clear in the London hall, was for their voice to be heard. They gave their testimony only after deciding that silence was no longer an option. Many stated that they had decided to speak, or cry out, for the sake of their spouses, their siblings or their parents, and the sake of their people in general. They spoke quietly and with restraint, but effectively were shouting for help: Save my sister, my father, my mother – save my people.
An additional tragic element hovered over the scene. In contrast to the witnesses’ expectations, the whole world was not watching. Even the hall itself was not full. Most of the September sessions were attended by about 50 people, most of them activists, experts or family members. There were few journalists or television cameras. Although the tribunal received a modicum of British and international media coverage, it vanished quickly in the shadow of the events in Afghanistan, and the ongoing pandemic and climate crises. There are simply not enough foreign news slots available.
Still, the witnesses seemed to have realistic expectations from the tribunal. “China is not a member of the ICC in The Hague, so it’s impossible to obtain justice for the Uyghurs,” Nyrole Elimä, 36, from Xinjiang, who now lives in Sweden, told Haaretz. “We are not like Israel, which was able to bring Eichmann to trial by itself. We will never have that [possibility], our genocide has no court, so when the most respected jurist in Britain and the professors and PhDs of the panel arrived, I wanted to tell them our story.”
Elimä was referring to Sir Geoffrey Nice, a barrister and former professor of law who led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic former president of Serbia, at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in the years 1998-2006, and decided to take on this mission as well. The other eight members of the tribunal are British public figures from a range of fields (and not necessarily China experts) – law, medicine, business, human rights, education and culture – who have committed to maintain an impartial procedure. Also involved are researchers, interpreters and advisers who have been collecting testimony and other materials for more than a year. The tribunal has amassed hundreds of thousands of pages on the subject, including the stories of some 500 witnesses and explanations by about 100 experts from various fields. As such, it has become the repository of the most significant body of knowledge in the world on this subject.
Nevertheless, the tribunal, which was established as a private initiative and is funded entirely by donations, has no standing in international law and no powers of enforcement. It cannot arrest suspects, impose sanctions or punish anyone. All that its members can do is to strive to uncover the truth, in the hope that the international community will be ready to listen and to act accordingly. And there is another crucial difference between this tribunal and others like it. In contrast to the international proceedings conducted in the wake of World War II, and following the Yugoslavia conflicts and the genocide in Rwanda – the Uyghur Tribunal is being held in real time. The alleged crimes it is supposed to examine continue to be committed, even as the tribunal meets. This fact lends its work a sense of urgency and deep responsibility, even if not legal force.
‘Separatism, terrorism, extremism’
I can’t cry and I can’t die, I must see them pay for this. I am already a walking corpse, my soul and heart are dead. Tursunay Ziyawudun
More than 25 million people live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as it is officially called. Of them about 40 percent are Han Chinese, the country’s largest, and dominant, ethnic group. The others are members of ethnic minorities, of which the Uyghur is the largest. In recent decades, the region, which today remains autonomous only in name, has undergone an industrialization process in the wake of massive investments by the regime, which also moved large numbers of Han Chinese into the region. These changes generated tension between the local population and the central government and led to separatist activity by groups of Uyghurs, including a number of terrorist attacks. In 2014, the regime declared a war against “separatism, terrorism and extremism” in the region. The conflict grew more acute in 2017, when the government’s representative in the region was replaced. The new Communist Party Committee Secretary of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who for years had been in charge of suppressing the protest movement in Tibet, intensified the policing, monitoring and supervision of the local population.
Some of the witnesses who spoke to the tribunal described the radicalization of the regime’s actions vis-a-vis the population: the systematic destruction of mosques across the region, the demolition of Uyghur neighborhoods and villages under the guise of a war on poverty, and the forced transfer of the population to new neighborhoods in the cities, where they live under strict governmental surveillance, and are forced to work in factories.
In the course of just a few years, the entire region became a police state. “I couldn’t recognize my native village,” said a Kazakhstan citizen who was born in Xinjiang and visited his relatives in 2017. “My family was afraid to talk to me.”
As the oppression in Xinjiang became more acute, it became dramatically more difficult to obtain firsthand information about developments on the ground. Reliable journalistic reporting from the region has been effectively nonexistent for some years. Any member of the press entering the region gets to see only what the authorities want to show them, so information flows from very limited sources: witnesses who manage to escape from the country, analyses of satellite images, information that appears (sometimes by mistake or inadvertently) in the local media, and leaked official documents that reach the Western media. Thus the broad mosaic of testimonies voiced in the tribunal is highly exceptional. The grimmest of them come from the men and women who were incarcerated in “reeducation” camps.
Many of the women who were imprisoned testified about being raped, about being forced to take medications and about medical examinations whose purpose was unstated. One of them is Gulbahar Jelilova, 57, who was imprisoned for 15 months on a charge of engaging in terrorist activity. She told about interrogations in which she was tied to a chair for 24 hours, during which, whenever she fell asleep, she would be awakened with an electric shock. When she refused to sign a confession, she was raped.
“There was only one bed in the room with a bedcover and a table and chair,” Jelilova related in her testimony (given in Uyghur and translated into English by the tribunal). “They asked me to sit on the chair and they chained me to it. There were three people, one on computer, one translating and one interrogating. They asked me again to sign. I refused and said I need a lawyer. They said I had to sign it to get my freedom. One of the Chinese men removed his trousers and approached me and tried to put his penis in my mouth. I said, ‘Don’t you have a sister and mother?’… The other Chinese man was beating me.”
She also told the tribunal about the fates of some of the other women she was incarcerated with: mothers who gave birth in the camp and had their newborns taken from them, women whose arms were bound to their legs for extended periods, so that they could not stand erect, others who were taken to the “dark room” – a cage of one meter by one meter, beneath which water flows and where it is impossible to stand up. So crowded were the cells, Jelilova said, that the inmates were forced to sleep in shifts, because there wasn’t enough room for all of them to lie down at the same time. They had to relieve themselves standing up and with cameras constantly trained on them. Like many other witnesses, she too noted the meager food and moldy bread, and the effort at brainwashing by having to sing songs of praise to the party for hours on end.
“We were made to say things like ‘I love China’ or ‘I love [Chinese President] Xi Jinping,’” stated Gulzire Awulqanqizi, 42, from the city of Ghulja in Xinjiang, who spent time in four different camps in 2017 and 2018. “We had to write down everything, our feelings and our gratitude toward Xi Jinping. Once every week they would mark our writings, and they would tell us that if we failed to pass, we would be kept inside the camp our whole life.”
She too was forced to take pills and endure inoculations that affected her cognitive abilities and disrupted her menstrual cycle. She was interrogated 19 times, beaten and forced to eat pork, which is forbidden to her as a Muslim. In some cases, she related, inmates were made to burn copies of the Koran.
In one of the camps, she was forced to carry out a particularly onerous task. “My duty was to sit next to the curtain, then when [a member of the] staff comes in with a woman, she writes her name in Chinese and I take her fingerprints, I help her take her clothes off, but not the clothing below the waist. I also had to restrain her hands with chains. I was not allowed to talk to her. Then a man enters the room, and I go sit silently next to the door, outside the room. When the man leaves the room, I take the woman for a shower. There was nothing I could do, I was forced… I would go on to do this task for six months.”
Gulzire Awulqanqizi was interrogated 19 times, beaten and forced to eat pork, which is forbidden to her as a Muslim. In some cases, she related, inmates were made to burn copies of the Koran.
Abdusalem Muhammad, 44, related that when he and other men arrived in their camp, they were stripped naked and thrust into a small, freezing-cold cell. Sixteen men, handcuffed together in pairs, were thrust into a space of 2.5 square meters (27 sq. ft.), in which there wasn’t enough room to sleep.
“There was no cover for the bucket which we used as a toilet. We had to smell from the bucket day and night, so we had runny noses or nasal infections,” he testified. He stated that the inmates were required to memorize Chinese poetry that ran on over many pages, and that those whose who failed to commit them to memory were punished. The punishments included savage beatings, sleep and food deprivation, and interrogations that lasted more than 48 hours. In one camp, to which Muhammad was sent in 2015, the prisoners were taken for cruel runs. “They called it a kind of exercise but it was another form of torture,” he told the tribunal. “There were 70-year-old ladies, they could not run, even walking was difficult for them, and sometimes they fell or tripped. At that moment, the police officers started to beat or kick [them], so they stood up and ran again.”
One witness said he saw a prisoner beaten to death; another related that in the middle of winter he was thrown handcuffed into a narrow, deep pit where he had water poured on him until he lost consciousness; and another spoke about unexplained blood tests he was forced to undergo. A key witness during the June sessions was a Chinese man who had served as a policeman in Xinjiang before leaving China in 2020.
The police officer, Wang Leizhan, now lives in Germany. His testimony, in which he talked about the orders he was compelled to carry out, completes sections of the puzzle. He stated that he was one of 150,000 police officers who were recruited to work in the region and who received training in the political reeducation (he called it “brainwashing”) of the Uyghur population. Police barriers were placed every 500 meters in city streets, and in rural areas even every 200 meters. “All Uyghurs residents in Xinjiang had to provide the Chinese government with DNA samples, to enable continual monitoring of Uyghurs,” he related. “We arrested around 300,000 Uyghurs [because] they might have had a knife at home or because they were exposing their cultural identity, or they were somehow considered to have a different ideology. In some villages in Xinjiang, the whole population of a village was taken to the concentration camps.”
Leizhan testified that he saw prisoners being tortured. Before his eyes, prisoners were made to go down on their knees and were beaten, heads covered with a plastic bag and arms and legs bound, while a pipe funneled water into their mouth. He also witnessed torture by means of electric shocks administered to the genitals, saw hammers being used to break legs and also men being stripped and placed in freezing water, and he recounted how inmates were starved.
Another bit of information provided by the former police officer is especially important: “The children of many adults in the concentration camps have been taken into state orphanages, where they have been assimilated into Han Chinese culture.”
Indeed, it emerges from testimony that the Chinese regime is pursuing a particularly brutal policy with regard to Uyghur children. This involves not only the separation of children from their parents but also coerced abortions. “My wife was pregnant for six months and the fetus was ripped out of her body,” Baqitali Nur said in a choking voice.
Rahima Mohammed Nuri, a nurse who worked in a maternity ward where she focused on abortion procedures, provided context for Nur’s account. In her testimony, which she delivered from Turkey, she confirmed that the regime does in fact carry out forced abortions on women, even if they are in advanced stages of pregnancy. A panel member asked whether there were cases in which pregnancy was terminated in the sixth or seventh month and viable living fetuses were delivered. Nuri replied in the affirmative, but added that the mothers received an injection before the infant emerged, so these infants died within 72 hours of birth.
What happens in the hall in London during the moments when testimony is given about the death of an infant or about gang rape? Not much, in fact. There is no sense of dramatic climax: the statements are translated, the social-media people post tweets, some people gape at the witness, others close their eyes. The floor is turned over to the next witness.
Long arm of the regime
It’s difficult to overstate the degree of courage shown by those who came here to tell their story. “I had a panic attack before I took the floor to speak,” says Nyrole Elimä; she was testifying in the name of her cousin, Mayila Yakufu, who was arrested when she tried to transfer money to her parents, who live in Australia. Yakufu was sent to a reeducation camp, where she was later hospitalized, and is currently incarcerated on a charge of financing terrorist activity. “While testifying,” Elimä recalled later, “ I didn’t turn my head, because I was afraid. I know that the Chinese government is checking all the time, I knew they were watching me and I felt as though they were standing next to me. But they left me no choice.”
The fear of the long arm of the Chinese regime is well founded, and even those who managed to flee to the West have cause for apprehension. Omer Rozi, who escaped from Xinjiang after being arrested and tortured, has lived in Norway for some years. “In January 2017,” by which time he was in Norway, “I got a call without a number displayed,” he testified. “I was told on the phone that I would meet my brother and sister. Then they hung up right away. Right after the phone hung up, I got a video call on WeChat. When I opened the WeChat video call my brother and sister were hanging. The police on the video call gave me four conditions [for their release].” The conditions included not approaching anyone else in the Uyghur diaspora and not donating to Uyghur organizations in Turkey. “The last thing I heard was my brother and sister screaming before they hung up. I have not heard anything since then.”
Similarly, Mehray Mezensof, 27, who testified via video link from Australia, related how fearful she was for the fate of her husband, from whom she hadn’t heard for more than a year. “He lives in constant fear,” she says, “always looking over his shoulder.” Relatives understood that he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“The witnesses who are speaking here are very strong,” I am told by Rahima Mahmut, a Uyghur activist who is assisting the tribunal as an interpreter. “But not everyone can be like that. Not everyone is able to speak, not even in front of the family. That is very common. Like many of the survivors of World War II, who didn’t tell anything.” Some witnesses who appeared before the tribunal received threatening calls from Chinese persons, and relatives begged them not to testify. She says she understands those who opted to be silent.
Mahmut too has family in Xinjiang, including nine siblings. The last time she spoke with any of them was in 2017. They stopped answering and she stopped calling. She was afraid that getting calls from abroad might land them in danger. But she admits that she too was afraid to discover the truth. In one of the last conversations, she relates, one of her brothers told her, “Leave us in God’s hands.”
The Chinese are undertaking “far-reaching and relentless campaigns to silence, intimidate, harass and slander witness testimonies,” testified Laura Harth, from the human rights organization Safeguard Defenders. The Chinese authorities work on two planes, she says: by issuing international arrest warrants and launching judicial proceedings against Uyghurs in exile who could potential speak out about their experiences, and by threatening their families and other loved ones in China. Harth provided the tribunal with examples of cases in which people who told their stories in the West were accused of embezzlement, cheating on their partners, rape, drug abuse and abandoning their families.
The Chinese regime is pursuing a particularly brutal policy with regard to Uyghur children. This involves not only the separation of children from their parents but also coerced abortions.
China, which initially denied the existence of the camps, effectively replaced its policy of sweeping denial with a campaign to reshape the discourse. According to Beijing, the camps are used to combat religious extremism and also for professional training, and their residents have chosen to be there of their own free will. At one point the authorities claimed that the camps had served their purpose, and that all the prisoners had been sent home. A series of videos disseminated in China show survivors of camps heaping praise on the process they underwent. In other clips, relatives of witnesses condemn and deny the remarks of their family members. The same phrases are heard over and over in the videos by different families in different places, as if they were speaking from a script.
It turns out that even the expert witnesses, whether Chinese or not, who testified before the tribunal are taking a risk and that many of them suffer ongoing harassment. Muetter Iliqud, an Uyghur researcher in a project that documents the disappearance of Uyghurs, relates that in the days ahead of her presentation to the tribunal, many attempts were made to hack her Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp accounts, and that she and her mother received phone calls from unidentified numbers. Recently her computer stopped working.
Julie Millsap, an American activist who testified about what is being done to Uyghur children, also showed me screenshots of anonymous Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts that harassed her. The accounts shared faked photographs of her supposedly cheating on her partner, with the caption, “We’ll show this to your husband.” The images, which were in fact sent to her husband, were also spammed on the Uyghur Congress livestream chat during her testimony to the tribunal.
‘Stepping into the future’
The dozens of professional experts who testified at the hearings – scholars, civil society activists, jurists and investigative reporters – rounded off the picture drawn by camp survivors and revealed snippets of information about what’s going on in one of the world’s most secretive regions.
The American journalist Geoffrey Cain, who visited Xinjiang and conducted many interviews in the reporting for his recently published book “The Perfect Police State: An Undercover Odyssey into China’s Terrifying Surveillance Dystopia of the Future,” described an environment that might have been drawn from a work of science fiction. “When I visited North Korea, I felt like I was stepping into the past,” he said, “but when I got to Xinjiang I felt I was stepping into the future.”
Cain related that beyond the familiar means for gathering information about residents – such as the use of spies, interrogations and psychological pressure – the Chinese regime also employs an advanced technological system that collects vast amounts of information about each of the region’s inhabitants. This includes shopping and consumption habits, web surfing, downloaded apps, police and court reports, employment data, physical features, images from street cameras, information from gas stations, roadblocks and schools, and checks of digital calendars and of people’s whereabouts. This immense quantity of data, which is accumulated in part with the help of new systems of face and voice recognition, is forwarded directly to local authorities, who use it in order to decide, among other questions, whom to send to the camps.
The face-recognition technology is used in the service of the regime, but is developed by the Chinese high-tech industry. Another American researcher, Conor Healy, testified that the Chinese tech company Huawei took part in developing the “Uyghur alarm,” a monitoring system that identifies and classifies faces of passersby as Han or Uyghur. Three years ago, the company sought to patent the technology. According to this testimony, other merchandising firms, such as the cloud service of Alibaba and the surveillance giant Tiandy Technologies, are also engaged in ethnic recognition. Another Tiandy product is a “smart interrogation table,” which includes a touch screen, an electronic display of evidence and a system for recording interrogations – everything that’s needed to streamline the questioning of masses of detainees.
Illiqud, who works for the Uyghur Transitional Justice Database, was not deterred from testifying despite the harassment of the Chinese regime, and presented a comprehensive report about the incarceration situation in Xianjiang. Based on interviews, leaked policy documents, photographs and satellite images, the report details the types of camps, their locations, size and number. There are several types of camps: for reeducation, incarceration, pretrial detention and work camps, the latter of which are like forced-labor farms. The report states that, as of last month, at least 1,347,000 persons were imprisoned in the reeducation camps, at least 422,000 were incarcerated in prisons, 486,000 in pretrial detention centers and 76,000 in work camps.
Ebrakit Otarbay, 48, was an inmate in one such work camp. He was sent to sew in a textile factory, where, he related, the conditions were a slight improvement over those in the reeducation camp. The food was better, though to get a meal the workers had to sing propaganda songs praising the communist regime. Cameras filmed them throughout their working day.
His testimony reveals something of the way in which forced laborers in these camps become a chain in the global fashion industry. A report issued last year showed how big fashion firms in the West that employ local Chinese firms, are actually enjoying the products of forced labor.
Even though there is no great likelihood of something parallel to the fall of the Berlin Wall, those things do happen. And the best way to make them happen is to do everything possible to bring the truth to light. Sir Geoffrey Nice
“Normally they do not show us the brand of the clothes,” Otarbay testified. “The clothing brand was stitched by their own people. Once they showed us a brand, it was a small towel used by Nanhang [a Chinese airline] in China. Later, they scolded us for putting on the wrong brand [i.e., label] and asked us to remove them. Then we had meetings for a whole day saying that these things should not be told anywhere else. There were cameras watching us while we were working. We have not seen [the names of] any brands since that incident. We sewed pants in addition to making pants belts. Each of us used to sew different parts. One person sews pockets, another person sews the back and another one sews other parts.” Asked by a member of the tribunal whether he was paid for his work, Otarbay laughed.
The tribunal’s work generally proceeded tranquilly, apart from isolated interference from the Chinese. During the September hearings, for example, the Chinese ambassador to Britain held a press conference in which he accused the tribunal of lying and claimed it was conducting a “pseudo-trial” and a “political manipulation aimed at discrediting China.” The ambassador also asked the British government to prevent the continuation of this “malicious behavior.” London did nothing, and as often happens, the Chinese outburst got the tribunal a few more headlines.
But what if there’s some truth to the Chinese claims? After all, if there is no official Chinese representative here, what makes the tribunal a proper judicial process? If there is no one to reply to the accusations, and if the tribunal lacks concrete authority, what meaning does it have? The most suitable person to respond to these questions, which challenge the very existence of the procedure, is the person who heads it: Sir Geoffrey Nice. In the middle of the third day of the proceedings I spoke to him in a side room off the main hall.
“The people who gathered here have no interest in the result, no special interest in the Uyghur people and no intention of making recommendations,” Sir Geoffrey said about the tribunal he established. “Our only wish is to answer a question that is not being asked by national or international bodies. We are ordinary non-specialist representatives of the general public who are investigating a subject that is not being discussed anywhere else, with the best means at the public’s disposal.”
He added, “For your readers, I am certain it will be easy to understand, without making excessive use of the example of Nazi Germany, that there were times at the end of the 1930s when information that could have been open to the public was concealed from the public by governments, by the media and even by the public’s disinclination to know. Proceedings of this sort, had they been carried out then, could perhaps have served a very good cause.”
For the sake of the historical perspective, is what you are hearing here similar to the information that might have been used to prevent the Holocaust of European Jewry?
“In a certain sense, yes. There’s no point in suggesting that comparisons close to the Holocaust can be made when, in truth, they can’t. For example, evidence about the suffering of the Uyghurs does not at present include evidence of mass killings. But when there is a failure to reveal something in time, or a lack of determination to know, or an attempt to conceal things from citizens, a procedure like a public tribunal has great value. What has changed since World War II, and even then only slowly, is that the world’s citizens are less willing to agree to silence for political reasons and are ready, perhaps, to take more part in procedures such as these and also to respect their results. The first procedure of this kind – the public tribunal on Vietnam of Lord Russell and Sartre [the British philosopher Bertrand Russell and the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in 1967] – attracted very little attention and did not have significant results. Things have progressed since then, not least because the United Nations created international criminal tribunals in the 1990s – for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – and the term ‘genocide’ entered into general use after not having been in use for a long time.”
Nice, who has taken part in three previous public tribunals, also addresses the question of the objectivity of the whole procedure and of the witnesses in particular. “I am not worried,” he says, “for the same reason that I was not worried that the Nazi hunters were almost always Jews. Would it be preferable, from the viewpoint of visibility, for the experts not to be affiliated with organizations of one kind or another? Possibly. Will we ever have experts of that kind? Probably not. It’s likely that a person who researches the suffering of a group will belong to that group or possess a strong interest in that group. I am quite sure that you will find that those who led the formal proceedings after the Nuremberg trials, as with the Eichmann trial, were all interested parties – and why not, actually?”
Do you think that a formal legal proceeding will ever be launched against China in regard to the Uyghurs?
“No one expected that the leaders of states would come to international judicial proceedings. No one expected that Burma would be taken to an international court, but then The Gambia arrived on the scene and changed that with creative legal thinking. [In 2019, that African country filed a case against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice over the latter’s treatment of its Rohingya population.] Of course, China is a country of vast power which wields influence over its neighbors, over other countries and over bodies such as the [UN’s] Human Rights Council, so that quite a bit of optimism is needed [to believe we will] see an international judicial proceeding take place. But things change. Even though there is no great likelihood of something parallel to the fall of the Berlin Wall or the seizure and execution of [Romania’s] President Ceausescu, those things do happen. And the best way to make them happen is to do everything possible to bring the truth to light.”
The uncovering of the truth is also the ideal that is driving Aldo Zammit Borda, who heads the tribunal’s research and investigation unit. “People ask what is the point of people’s tribunals that possess no formal power or authority to punish,” says Dr. Zammit Borda, an associate professor in international law at City, University of London. “Speaking generally, as we have seen throughout history, there are countries that have great power, and their power can potentially be used not only to commit crimes within their area of jurisdiction, but also to shape the narrative about those crimes. They can forbid discussions in international bodies, so that the victims of these crimes suffer twice – once from the crime itself and a second time from the silencing of the crime, from the denial of its existence. A people’s tribunal conducting public hearings, even if it has no formal authority, is able in large measure to change and challenge that narrative. In cases where avenues for formal justice have been blocked, in the end, the victims have to choose between a tribunal like this, with the limited justice it can provide, or silence.”
But will revelation of the truth and reshaping of the narrative satisfy the witnesses who are appearing here? I ask Abduweli Ayup, an Uyghur intellectual who went through a number of camps in Xinjiang and now lives in Norway, how he felt when he stood before the members of the tribunal and told his story. “I felt that I was carrying tremendous responsibility,” he replies. “This is the place where it will be decided whether genocide is happening or not. This is a human issue, a world issue. I was afraid, but millions of people are in concentration camps and I am speaking on their behalf. I am not one person who is speaking, these are millions who are speaking. The question us: Who is listening? Who will take action?”
Ayup says he was disappointed when he saw that there were only about 50 people in the hall, when he appeared before the tribunal in June, but then recalled that millions more were watching and listening. He’s probably being overoptimistic. There was indeed live coverage of the hearings online, and there were people physically present who simply came in order to listen and to help, but they were few in number. One was Jonathan Gibson, a local, kippa-wearing 18-year-old who founded an interfaith organization called “Burst the Bubble UK.” He turned up at the hearings with several other youngsters who, together with him, organize campaigns against such wrongs as religious persecution and modern slavery. They came to support the Uyghurs’ struggle. I also spoke with Julia Granville, who came as part of a collective of psychotherapists who help witnesses process the brutal experiences they have undergone and support them through their testimonies. And occasionally people showed up who were simply curious, having heard about the issue on the news. But that’s it, more or less.
In December, the tribunal will reassemble at the Church House conference center in Westminster to inform the world of its judgment regarding whether crimes against humanity are being perpetrated in Xinjiang and whether the Chinese regime is implementing genocide against the Uyghurs. Provided, of course, that the world wants to know.
Outside the building, life goes on normally. At the entrance to the Underground station, a few dozen anti-vaxxers are demonstrating against the coronavirus vaccines. “Even one death is too many,” one of the signs says. Next to the statue of Churchill, a small man with a large bullhorn reminds passersby not to forget Jesus. Someone else, long-haired and unshaven, is demonstrating against the use of plastic bottles, and on the lawn between Parliament and Westminster Abbey a group of hunger strikers are protesting the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. They’re of different backgrounds, ages, genders and nationalities, but they’re all intermingling, and they all have one thing in common: No one is turning around to check for the enemy behind their back.