“Never Again” all over again

Nina Sartor
December 3, 2020
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

The plight of the Uyghurs must be recognized as genocide by the international community and students have a responsibility to advocate for their human rights

cw: genocide

What is happening to the Uyghurs? Depending on who you ask, you will receive helpfully pedantic descriptions such as: “education,” “vocational training,” “repression,” “violent suppression,” “cultural genocide,” “postmodern genocide” and “demographic genocide.” The first two, offered as explanations by the Chinese state are fictitious to the point of absurdity. Similarly, the finger-wagging condemnations of “repression” and even “violent suppression,” while ostensibly denouncing the treatment of Uyghurs evade more significant criticisms.

Rather incomprehensibly, most accusations of genocide invariably insert a qualifier — “demographic,” “cultural” and “postmodern” — perhaps to make the charges more palatable, less alarming and less meaningful.  The fundamental question remains: is this a genocide, in the true sense of the word?

Unfortunately, previous experiences with the matter furnish us with the answer. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was signed by China in 1948, lists the actions that qualify as genocidal when they are inflicted with the intent to destroy, entirely or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. One such condition is the infliction of severe physical or mental harm on members of the group.

Since 2014, the Chinese government has routinely and arbitrarily imprisoned Uyghurs in “re-education camps” — essentially concentration camps where detainees are tortured, starved and beaten, subjected to waterboarding and electric shocks and psychologically tortured. Testimony from escaped detainees and their families can hardly fail to convince even the most dispassionate judge that such actions constitute serious physical and mental harm. This is genocide.

Under said UN convention, that should be enough to constitute genocide. However, we are fortunate enough to be supplied with enough evidence so as to be excessive in our exposition. Another condition for genocide is the undertaking of activities to prevent births within the group.

An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that Uyghur women were: forcibly implanted with an intrauterine device; underwent unwanted sterilization, abortions and pregnancy checks; were force-fed birth control pills and injected with unknown fluids; had their children removed and placed in orphanages; and were sent to camps for giving birth to multiple children.

Between 2015 and 2018, the birth rate in some ethnically Uyghur areas had plummeted more than 60 per cent. To all appearances, these actions can only be aimed at dramatically decreasing the Uyghur birth rate and ultimately reducing the size of the group until it is easily assimilable. This is genocide.

This is not to say that the charges of, say, cultural genocide are any less morally repugnant; they are simply not enough. An article first published in the Financial Times argues that our society has “fetishized” genocide as the ultimate, virtually uncommittable horror — historical memory has set the bar too high. Such a view of genocide makes possible only retrospective acknowledgment, thereby obstructing efforts at prevention.

Shall we then settle for milder, qualified accusations and hope for an equally mild response? Certainly not. What is needed now is the civic and political courage to stand behind that coda to one of humanity’s greatest failings, “Never Again,” and ensure that the genocide of the Uyghurs is recognized, terminated and prosecuted. 

University students have a long and venerable tradition as progressive champions of human rights. From the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley campus to climate change advocacy, university students have a unique cohesion and shared experience that makes organization and protest against injustices a successful weapon of change.

As the Canadian government moves towards recognizing the Chinese government’s policy as genocide, the McMaster University student body, along with other groups in Canada, have the responsibility to advocate for oppressed peoples around the globe. Letter writing campaigns, opinion pieces, protests, raising social awareness — these are all actions we can and must undertake to stop the Uyghur genocide and ensure that the “Never Again” does not happen again.


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