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OP-ED: Why the Uighur genocide in China matters

  • Published at 12:41 am March 18th, 2021
File photo: Security guards stand at the gates of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Huocheng County in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 3, 2018 Reuters

Is it a good idea to depend on a superpower that flouts international norms?

Bangladesh was founded 50 years ago this month as an independent state from the embers of a brutal genocide. And genocide is once again in the news. Not in Bangladesh but in China. Over the past week the news has been dominated by the findings of the independent report from the Newlines Institute in cooperation with Raoul Wallenberg Centre, which argues that China bears state responsibility for breaching every article of the 1948 Genocide Convention in their treatment of the Uighur people of Xinjiang province. 

Xinjiang may seem like half a world away, but what China does has direct consequences for the politics of Myanmar, and by extension, for Bangladesh’s own situation with the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. 

How the international community ultimately responds to this issue will be a pivotal event in the history of this century. China is currently the second-most powerful country in the world, and its trajectory is still firmly upwards. Sooner or later, China is expected to be able to successfully challenge the US for the top position, if current trends are maintained.  

Against that background, the issue of the genocide of the Uighurs will be of global significance in at least one of two ways. First, if China continues with its policies and successfully destroys the Uighur identity, and the response from the international community is muted, we will find ourselves in 50 years’ time in a world where the pre-eminent global superpower is an unapologetic perpetrator of genocide. 

This will have consequences for marginalized groups of people throughout China’s immediate regional neighbourhood, but also anywhere in China’s sphere of influence. There will never be any justice for the Rohingya people of Myanmar, as Myanmar is quite firmly in Beijing’s sphere of influence, for example. Moreover, as Chinese influence continues to spread in western Asia, and in Africa, already-present ethnic tensions and rivalries in these regions will be given permission to grow into full-blown ethnic warfare and even more genocides. 

And even countries not aligned with China might feel emboldened. Directly relevant to Bangladesh is the growing hostility towards Muslims in India, which may prompt yet another wave of refugees coming to our country from our biggest neighbour.

Alternatively, if the international community responds robustly to the Uighur genocide, this may be the moment when China’s global ascendency is stopped in its track, as counties dedicated to the values of human rights and international law, mostly Western counties and their traditional allies, start to withdraw from commercial arrangements with Beijing which make them economically dependent on the Asian giant, and start to reform as a new “Free World” reminiscent of the Cold War, and once again dominated economically by the US, but also underpinned by the US security guarantee. 

Of those two outcomes that currently seem possible, one is obviously preferable to the other. We must preserve the dignity of human life, and the power of the international laws which seek to protect it, even if we can only do so in our own part of the globe. If China is unwilling to join this global system of respect for human life and dignity, we should be unwilling to submit to their vision of might makes right for the benefit of just the commercial interests of a handful of companies. 

As per the Genocide Convention, any state that is party to the convention is complicit and criminally liable if it continues to engage with a state engaged in genocide. But more than that, every smaller country around the world must now weigh the importance of international law for their own security and the safety of their own people. 

The question for every such country for the remainder of this century is this: Is it a good idea to make yourself dependent on a global superpower which only cares for maximizing its own power and has no regard for any of your own interests, needs, or desires, or would it be a better idea to join the cause of a global superpower which at least allows itself to be bound by internationally-agreed laws and norms? 

Fortunately in Bangladesh, our current government has so far remained on the side of humanity. We have been the most humane hosts of such a large number of refugees, and we continue to do our moral duty towards our fellow human beings, and indeed our fellow Muslims. And if the world ends up once again divided in two, it will also mean that India will have to align itself with the West against China, which will also hopefully make it less likely that they will continue to oppress Muslims in their country and less likely that Bangladesh will have to receive even more refugees. 

Bangladesh should now also join with other democratic countries to push the International Olympic Committee to relocate the Olympics from Beijing to another country. Refusing to participate in Beijing’s “Games of Shame” will send the clearest signal on the values Bangladesh aligns itself with, and the world we want to leave to our children.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute US Army War College.