On December 10, 2020, International Human Rights Day, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that “on the international stage, Canada has been a consistently strong voice for protecting human rights and advancing democratic values.” We have heard similar statements by many leaders around the world.  As the United States claims to be the leader of the free world, there has been an ongoing myth that liberal democratic states, often referred to as the “West,” are leading the way in the promotion of international human rights. But are they really? 

It is one thing to make these claims in a speech, and another thing to prioritize them in action. For example, Trudeau’s actions have blatantly contradicted his words, from signing a deal to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, to refusing to vote in the House of Commons to call the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) treatment of the Uyghurs a genocide. Unfortunately, this hypocrisy does not stop with the Canadian government: it is part of a larger trend of governments claiming to be champions of human rights on one side, then turning around and contributing to the violation of human rights on the other side. Many countries that have previously been regarded as “progressive” in the realm of human rights have shown their true priorities in their reluctance to call the CCP’s recent actions a genocide. Their complicity and inaction cannot go unnoticed if they continue to declare their support for international human rights. 

Reluctance in calling out genocide  

Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as the following: 

In the present Convention, 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: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

For an event to be considered a genocide, only one of these categories has to be met. When applying these standards to what is happening to the Uyghur population in China, it appears that the conditions of genocide are being satisfied. In the Xinjiang province, over one million Uyghurs are being held against their will in what the Chinese government has called “re-education camps.” Even with China’s strict media restrictions making it difficult to understand what is really happening in the region, leaked documents called the “China Cables”  and testimonies from those who escaped have provided some insight for the international community. There has been evidence of various human rights violations taking place in the camps, such as torture, sexual abuse, and forced labour. For example, in 2020, BBC came out with evidence showing that 500,000 people were being forced to pick cotton. New factories have also been built in the camps suggesting plans for further forced labour. Many examples of cultural genocide – drastic attempts to destroy or erase an entire culture – are also happening, including CCP documents declaring the need to sever links to Uyghur cultural roots and labelling religious practices as “extremism.”  

Additionally, there have been accounts of the use of forced birth control and sterilization to limit the population’s ability to reproduce. The “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” is also clear, as it is targeted towards very specific ethnic groups including the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz among others.  

By the end of 2020, 39 countries took part in a joint statement at the UN condemning the CCP’s actions. While this may be a good first step, only a handful of countries have called what is happening in Xinjiang a genocide. If the conditions of genocide are obviously being met, why has there been so much international hesitancy to call it such, especially from states that claim they are “champions” of upholding human rights? 

Since the term “genocide” was created following the Holocaust in World War Two, the definition has been criticized as being both too narrow and too broad. Some have argued that proving a genocide is taking place “beyond reasonable doubt” – a clause in the official UN treaty – is too difficult. Others have said that it is hard to measure what counts as a group being targeted “in part,” tying back into the argument about the ambiguity of the term. While the Holocaust is the most agreed upon genocide, the Ottoman Turks’ actions against Armenians from 1915-1920 and the 1994 events in Rwanda have also been widely acknowledged as being genocides, although this sentiment is not unanimous.  

Additionally, many states are hesitant to use the term genocide because, as of the 2007 court ruling by the International Court of Justice, following the declaration of genocide, there is a “corresponding duty to act.” In other words, it is not enough for states to call out genocides: they need to actively fight to stop them. While it is one thing to point fingers at China and try to shame them into following international conventions, actively standing up to the economic giant through concrete actions is a whole other ball game. For example, states could participate in economic sanctions, boycott the 2022 Olympics scheduled to take place in Beijing, or place stricter travel restrictions on Chinese officials. If governments are not willing to take the next step in actively defending universal human rights, they sit in silence, complicit with the CCP’s crimes against humanity. 

International reactions

The United States was the first country to officially call the atrocities happening in China a genocide on January 19, 2021, Donald Trump’s last day in office. When President Joe Biden took office, he restated that the CCP is committing genocide. Once the US made the apparently daunting first move, other countries began to follow, introducing motions in respect to the use of genocide for their respective legislatures to vote on. 

On February 22, 2021, the Canadian House of Commons passed the vote declaring genocide, although notably, Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet abstained. This decision reflects extremely poorly on the current Liberal government, proving that their continuous claims of upholding human rights abroad are just empty words. 

Additionally, although the motion was debated and did receive some support within the Australian government, the proposed motion to call the CCP’s action a genocide was ultimately blocked on the basis that “it was a complex matter of foreign affairs.” Members of the Labour Party – one of the two parties to block the motion – have called the actions in Xinjiang “human rights violations” despite their failure to take action. Australia’s Uyghur population of about 3000 continue to urge the government to take stronger measures condemning the CCP.  

New Zealand has not yet had a motion put forward by a member of parliament, although there is talk of support within the government to do so. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has discussed the issue with Chinese leader Xi Jinping himself in 2019. Hopefully, she follows this up with further actions, starting with the use of the word genocide. 

While the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, and the US have all now imposed different forms of sanctions against China in response to their human rights violations, it will be interesting to see how far they will go to fight for international human rights. The UK has not called the event a genocide and the EU is going through its own set of difficulties trying to balance trade agreements with China and upholding morals. Currently, the Netherlands is the only European country to officially use the term genocide.

Moving forward 

As individuals, we need to hold our governments accountable for what they say. As a society, we need to push past this trend of governments claiming they are champions of human rights with no evidence to support them. Although standing up to China may be scary and will no doubt result in consequences, governments can no longer allow themselves to be complicit when human rights violations are occurring and there is mounting evidence to prove it. 

Because using the term “genocide” has been so controversial in the past and is only used in all seriousness, calling what is happening in Xinjiang a genocide does have significant weight in the international community. There is strength in numbers, especially when standing up to one of the most powerful countries in the world. Individual states may be dependent on China, but it should not be discounted that China also depends on others too – collectively standing up to China could highlight this dependency. As China continues to rise, it cannot be allowed to do whatever it wants because of its economic weight. If we let the CCP get away with genocide, they will think they can get away with anything. Then how will the world look in 50 years if China surpasses the US as the world’s hegemon? 

Edited by Chelsea Bean and Tuti Sandra