Could three times be the charm for the dream of the Uyghurs to get the International Criminal Court to take up their plight? They certainly seem game to try, even as President Biden and President Xi prepare to meet in a virtual “summit.”
At a press conference last week in Brussels, Mamtimin Ala and Rodney Dixon — representatives for the Uyghur group called the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile — announced their intention to submit the “third dossier” of evidence seeking to have the ICC open an investigation into genocide they say is being inflicted on the Uyghurs by Communist China.
The press conference was followed in Washington by a protest of pro-Uyghur activists, who marched to the State Department from the White House. It was a modest group, as protests go in the capital, and the press conference in Brussels received little attention in the world press. All the same, the Uyghur group remains determined to pursue their goal of gaining recognition for East Turkestan as an independent Uyghur state.
Mr. Ala and his confreres have no illusions about the difficulties. Three months ago, Mr. Ala took to the pages of Foreign Policy to answer those who argue that independence from China isn’t the objective of most Uyghurs and that, as Mr. Ala put it, “pro-independence arguments damage attempts to protect Uyghurs’ human rights inside China.”
In the long run, Mr. Ala argued, “independence is the only way to guarantee protection for Uyghurs from the Chinese state.” He suggested that at the moment, the conversation on East Turkestan, which China calls Xinjiang, is framed in terms of human rights violations instead of being addressed as an international conflict. So part of what he seeks is to change that conversation.
The modern Uyghur movement emerged in 2017, when a Uyghur raised in Oklahoma, Salih Hudayar — then just twenty-four years old — founded the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement. Mr. Hudayar’s plan was to mobilize the Uyghur diaspora via social media. In quick succession, multiple Uyghur organizations rallied to Mr. Hudayar’s banner. In 2018, he obtained 100,000 signatures for a petition calling on the White House to condemn what they termed the “21st century holocaust.”
In April 2019, the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile offered Mr. Hudayar the position of ambassador to America. He accepted on the condition the exile Uyghur government would pledge to engage in liberal reforms, which it did. In November 2019, without ever having nominated himself, the East Turkistan exile parliament named him prime minister.
The liberal reforms that Mr. Hudayar wants pursued would distinguish his group from less democratically-minded exile groups. Under his direction the exiled Uyghurs sought audiences with international governments and human rights organizations alike, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch included. However, no headway could be made within the ICC, as China was neither then, nor now, a member state.
In December 2019, a glimmer of hope appeared for the Uyghurs, when the ICC revised its practices stating, “...the Court may exercise jurisdiction over crimes when part of the criminal conduct takes place on the territory of a State Party.” This ruling cleared the way for the Uyghurs to pursue human rights violations outside of China.
On July 6, 2020, the Uyghurs sent the ICC the “first dossier,” which focused on the purported genocide of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province, as well as specific cases of persecution in Cambodia and Tajikistan. The date on which the Uyghurs submitted the dossier was the closest they could get to the anniversary of the date in 2009 of what is known as the “Urumqi Massacre.”
That violence claimed the lives of 197 persons, Uyghurs and Han Chinese both. The communist government disputes the Uyghur accounts but acknowledges the deaths and concedes thousands were injured. In response to the “first dossier,” the ICC in December 2020 said it would need more evidence.
Mr. Hudayar’s network sent investigators on a fact-finding mission to the ICC member states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Their findings were incorporated into the “second dossier,” which was filed five months ago. It focused on the deportation of Uyghur refugees back to China from the investigated ICC member states. It also called on the then-prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, to travel to Tajikistan to investigate the alleged deportations.
Which brings us back to the latest events. On November 11, the exiled Uyghurs filed a “third dossier.” It alleges that in addition to Tajikistan, both Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan have also targeted Uyghur refugees for deportation back to China. It also underscores coordination between China and the Taliban in deporting Uyghur refugees. Responses to both the second and “third dossier” are expected concurrently from the ICC in December 2021.
This is a moment to watch. It raises the question of how long the International Criminal Court can keep dodging the plight of the Uyghurs. Mr. Hudayar says he fears that time is running out. “The Biden Administration claims they care about human rights,” Mr. Hudayar told The New York Sun. “Yet, on the campaign trail candidate Biden characterized China’s behavior as ‘genocide.’ Actions speak louder than words, sir."
Mr. Lenczycki is a political journalist, China watcher, and former professor of Mandarin and East Asian civilizations. @LenczyckiPhilip. Correction: November 2019 is the month that Mr. Hudayar was named prime minister of the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile; the month was given incorrectly in the bulldog.