Speaking Up to Genocide: What About the Uyghurs?

All of us at BC Law Impact want to make it clear that the contents of this guest post is addressed to those who deny the very real genocide happening in Xinjiang, and is not meant to group together or target anyone because of their race. We recognize that anti-Asian racism is a very real and terrible thing, and we stand with all Asian members of our community in denouncing hate in all its forms.

By Danny Abrahim 

“There is no genocide.”

If you feel attacked by the words “genocide,” “human rights,” or “the Chinese government is committing an ethnic and cultural genocide against millions of Uyghurs and violating numerous international human rights laws in the process,” this blog post is not for you.

After BC Law’s student organizations MELSA, APALSA, HHRP, ILS, and the Boston College’s Center for Human Rights co-hosted a talk on the mass detention of Uyghurs in China’s predominantly Muslim city Xinjiang, three things became abundantly clear: one, that oppression abroad can reach college campuses within the United States; two, that state-sponsored violence occurring in other countries intersects with different practices of law and U.S. movements; and three, how powerful speaking up and listening can be.

Unfortunately, these lessons were not entirely contained in the speakers’ talks, but were demonstrated in part by the reaction some students had to the event.

If a genocide happens but no one is around to talk about it, is it still a genocide?

To begin with, here is the United Nation’s definition of genocide:

“…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group; (check)
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (check)
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (check)
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (check)
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” 1. (check)

Organizing a talk to raise awareness about a genocide that threatens the lives of 12 million people should not be controversial. Acknowledging what Amnesty International has described as “the world’s most sophisticated surveillance systems and a vast network of hundreds of grim … internment campsshould not elicit accusations of anti-Asian racism. Describing the mass torture, forced sterilization and state-sponsored abduction of children happening in Xinjiang should not disrupt anyone’s learning on campus.

And yet, when the first post advertising the Uyghur Genocide Awareness event went live three weeks ago, all these things happened. In an attempt to have the talk canceled (which included a bizarre rant about white people disguising themselves as Uyghurs), a few students across Boston College hurled accusations of propaganda and one-sidedness at the organizers and speakers. Two substantiated their claims with the fact that Xinjiang was misspelled on the original flyers. One said their feelings were hurt.

There were some mutterings of a protest. On the day of the talk, a rumor was spread saying that it had been canceled, presumably in a last-ditch effort to prevent people from turning up. Fortunately, the rising tension culminated in nothing more than hot air, and the event brought in around 100 members of the BC community.

Despite the hailstorm, two Uyghur speakers came in to speak about their ordeals – one with her nine-month-old baby. Both Rayhan Asat, an international human rights attorney, and Shayida Ali, a software engineer, have family members who are missing in China’s internment camps. The furious students who emailed in, on the other hand, do not. 

While Asat expressed some surprise at the negativity surrounding the talk, she is no stranger to it. For years, Asat and Ali have been campaigning for their relatives and the Uyghurs at the risk of state retaliation (much less, indignant emails from enraged college students). 

Why do these genocide deniers matter?

They don’t. 

But even though the pushback ultimately fizzled into nothingness, it illustrated a larger issue: the genocide of Uyghurs is not insular. While Uyghurs are being persecuted in China, their families suffer in the U.S. There are people who live in the U.S., and in Boston, who have disappeared or have had family disappear into camps. Asat was about to receive her LLM from the Harvard Law School when her brother disappeared, and Ali’s missing uncle owns Boston’s only Uyghur restaurant, Silk Road, which is now being run by his wife and daughter.

On the flip side, a small but potentially disruptive group of people in Boston actively deny that a genocide is happening at all. Not only have they vocalized their skepticism and weird conspiracy theories, but they have imposed them on campuses like BC’s, impeding efforts to talk about China’s atrocities. Asat, Ali and at least one Chinese student mentioned fear of state reprisal for speaking up for Uyghurs, even within a supposed safe space like a U.S. college campus.

On a larger scale, the forced labor of Uyghurs has tainted supply chains of American brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, H&M, Uniqlo and Victoria’s Secret.2 The camps are also a reason why many have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics 2022, which over 100 million Americans watch.3 

What do camps all the way in China have to do with me, a law student about to make big bucks at XYZ firm?

If you ever wondered what would happen if 1984 was real, or if the Supreme Court went a different way in any particular seminal case, look no further than Xinjiang. The genocide exemplifies the worst case scenarios of various legal and social issues we grapple with in the U.S.

The relationship between the genocide and international human rights law is a no brainer. Less known, the genocide also touches on many other facets of the legal practice like corporate law. Asat cited corporations as the entities best poised to put an end to the genocide, since their business dealings with China and supply chains are intertwined with the camps. As future lawyers, we can help steer corporations in the right direction, towards ethical business practices instead of around them.

Also relevant are intellectual property and privacy law, which affect the investment, development and patenting of surveillance technology that is being used to monitor Uyghurs.4 Real property and art law both touch on the degradation and erasure of Uyghur cultural products and religious sites. Health and probate law matter too, evidenced by the forced sterilization of Uyghur women and China’s use of “’burial management centers’” [to] control all aspects of life for [Uyghurs] —even the act of dying.”5 

No matter which way you spin it, what’s happening to the Uyghurs involves a litany of legal practices. It also parallels movements in the U.S. that we, future prosecutors, public defenders, policy writers, advocates, etc., purport to care deeply about.

For example, if you are concerned about police brutality or no-knock warrants, consider the reality faced by families in Xinjiang living in fear from knocks that mean the arbitrary arrests and abductions of their loved ones. Or if you are worried about the precarious state of reproductive rights, know that China has forcibly sterilized Uyghur women to the point where there has been an 84% decline in the group’s natural population growth.6  

If you care about family separation; women’s safety and sexual autonomy; racial profiling and segregation in public places; ineffective foreign policy; religious freedom; constitutional and privacy violations masquerading as counterterrorism measures; encroaching, authoritarian governments; or being able to breathe air – you should care about the Uyghurs, who are facing the worst possible outcomes of these issues, everyday.

Okay, I care – but what can I do? 

During her talk, Asat noted the irony of her situation, in which she could be a zealous legal advocate for everyone in the U.S. except her own brother. This is partly because Asat cannot step foot in China without risking being detained by authorities. Within the U.S., there is little she can do to pursue a case against the Chinese government for its abduction of her brother and millions of others. 

Ali echoed this, pointing out that while she and Asat can speak on behalf of their detained relatives, there are millions of Uyghurs who remain voiceless. 

People like Asat and Ali demonstrate how important it is to speak about the Uyghur genocide. Neither woman can immediately free their relatives, but they have managed to keep the discussion around their imprisonment going. Several students approached me later saying they had not previously heard of the Uyghur people, let alone the camps that detain them.

We can amplify Uyghur voices just by listening to them. When we share their stories, we help keep the spotlight on China. We also let people who live in our communities know that they are seen and heard during their darkest hour. Most importantly, joining others in a stand against injustice has a ripple effect – by helping other people, especially those who don’t look like us or speak our language, we forge friendships and create alliances that span across the globe.

Addressing the law students, Ali said, “You will be leading our future very soon.”

  1. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml
  2. https://www.aspi.org.au/report/uyghurs-sale
  3. https://nbcsportsgrouppressbox.com/2022/02/11/more-than-100-million-americans-have-watched-the-beijing-olympics-on-the-networks-of-nbcuniversal/
  4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/04/12/china-is-using-ai-repress-uyghurs-it-must-stop/
  5. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/burials-04192018141100.html
  6. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-53220713

Guest post author Danny Abrahim is a third-year student at BC Law.

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