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China and Myanmar face Uighurs and Rohingya that are fighting back after years of oppression

A sign of hope for accountability emerged this month after two Myanmar soldiers finally admitted their crimes.
Image: A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng
A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, on Sept. 4, 2018.Thomas Peter / Reuters file

Over the past several years, the Chinese government has locked up more than a million Uighurs, including model citizens like my 34-year-old brother Ekpar Asat. A philanthropist and founder of a social media platform catering to the Uighur community known as Bagdax, he came to the United States in 2016 to participate in an exchange program sponsored by the State Department, one from which many world leaders and Chinese citizens of the majority Han ethnicity have benefited for decades. Within weeks of returning from the United States to Xinjiang in western China, he disappeared into the shadows of the internment camps.

Rayhan Asat in front of her brother Ekpar Asat's portrait in September.
Rayhan Asat in front of her brother Ekpar Asat's portrait in September.Courtesy Rahhan Asat

Beijing has sentenced many other innocent Uighur people, a Turkic ethnic minority, to years and even life in concentration camps and prisons. Uighur women have been subject to forced sterilization and forced marriages to Han Chinese men. Nearly half a million children have been placed in orphanages, despite their families being alive, and then subjected to political and cultural indoctrination.

After years of this unconscionable treatment, a sign of hope for accountability emerged this month, somewhat ironically in the form of revelations of atrocities committed against another ethnic Muslim minority in Asia, the Rohingya of Myanmar.

Last week two Myanmar soldiers, Pvts. Zaw Naing Tun and Myo Win Tun, were shown on video confessing to carrying out orders to “shoot all that you see and all that you hear” against the Rohingya during a 2017 “clearance operation” — a well-orchestrated, systematic attack that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

Image: Rohingya refugees after crossing from Myanmar into Palang Khali, near Cox's Bazar
Rohingya refugees after crossing from Myanmar into Bangladesh, on Nov. 2, 2017.Hannah Mckay / Reuters file

The confession represented the first testimony from perpetrators corroborating the accounts that Myanmar soldiers shot children, raped women, destroyed villages and dumped bodies in mass graves, as previously described by Rohingya refugees and a United Nations’ fact-finding mission.

It also bolstered the criminal investigations against Myanmar aggressors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which investigates individuals suspected of crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. At present, the ICC is examining whether Myanmar’s military leaders carried out forced deportations by coercing Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, an ICC member state.

Like China, Myanmar refused to join the ICC, and the court’s jurisdiction principally applies only to those who are member states. However, the Court broadened its jurisdictional reach against Myanmar under a novel legal strategy that Rohingyas are victims of a forced deportation in which the crime was completed in the territory of an ICC member state, Bangladesh. This legal approach could be used in a similar way against China.

Authoritarian governments often emulate one another; one can find many similar practices between Myanmar and China. Both governments target and persecute ethnic minorities that do not conform to their artificial ideals. Both vehemently deny the allegations while deploying similar strategies and forms of punishment. Both authorities label their genocidal campaigns internal security matters and reject public criticism from democratic countries. Both governments have justified their actions by claiming that the ethnic minorities are extremists, legitimizing ruthless human rights violations under the guise of counterterrorism.

Relying on the Myanmar lawsuit as precedent, British lawyers representing two Uighur organizations filed a landmark complaint with the ICC this year against the Chinese government. The basis for their claim was also forced deportation committed partially in the territory of ICC member states. A number of Uighurs have been forcibly deported from Cambodia and Tajikistan, both ICC member states, and returned to China to be sent to concentration camps.

The ICC is one of the limited avenues for the Uighur people to pursue accountability in their ongoing struggle for justice because of China’s immense political and economic clout. While the Myanmar crisis benefited from public condemnation by Hollywood celebrities such as Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie, China’s overwhelming economic influence has resulted in devastating indifference and complicity from the entertainment industry.

Disney’s recently released “Mulan” even offered thanks during the film’s closing credits to a Chinese government agency responsible for facilitating the internment camps. This complicity contradicts the ideals of those in the music, business and entertainment industries.

And the entertainment industry is not the only entity that is notoriously known for appeasing China. The Organization for Islamic Cooperation mobilized and actively promoted United Nations mechanisms for Rohingyas but it looked away when similar atrocities were committed against the Uighur people, because of China’s close economic ties with its member countries.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, which passed a resolution establishing the fact-finding mission for Myanmar, has failed to do the same for the Uighur people despite repeated calls from human rights advocates, including more than 50 U.N. experts. Instead, China is expected to soon be re-elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council, making the prospect of any action by the body on human rights abuses against the Uighurs virtually nil.

This is why the ICC offers so much promise, especially because — since the forcible transfer originated in ICC member states — the ICC could prosecute all the resulting crimes that took place in Xinjiang and other parts of China after the forced deportations. These include torture, enslavement, arbitrary imprisonment, enforced sterilization, enforced disappearances and even genocide.

An active ICC investigation would allow the court to compile a list of names of perpetrators engaged in the atrocities, including those responsible for providing China with the sophisticated technology to create and sustain a police state and develop the internment camps. Once it gathers enough credible information on perpetrators, the court can issue arrest warrants, allowing senior-level perpetrators to be detained whenever they enter any of the 123 ICC member states’ territory.

Additionally, the confession of the two Myanmar soldiers demonstrates the important role of whistleblowers in ICC investigations, whereby lower-level agents can provide key information for identifying senior-level perpetrators against whom the court can eventually issue arrest warrants.

A successful finding of genocide and crimes against humanity in the Myanmar case would send a message that perpetrators cannot commit the crime of all crimes with impunity and bring some sense of justice to Rohinga victims. It would also be a heartening signal to the Uighur community that the ICC is willing to hold economically and politically powerful nonmember state parties accountable for atrocities committed in part on state parties’ territories and bring some form of comfort to victims in their pursuit of justice.

Newly revealed evidence demonstrates that the Chinese government is determined to build new more permanent internment facilities, making it that more urgent for the ICC to launch an investigation to help the innocent victims of internment camps like my brother Ekpar. The Uighur case represents a true test of the international community’s commitment to justice and accountability, and the ICC must seize this opportunity to affirm that no government or official may commit atrocities with impunity.