The Uighur genocide: a human catastrophe without answer

What happens far away from us generally does not affect us for more than a fleeting moment: while reading an article, listening to the TV news, or discussing in a party. And then, sometimes, with time or thanks to a momentum caused by a specific event, what was only brief news, non-event or an insignificant situation is on the rise and becomes unbearably visible: one cannot ignore it anymore. I believe that this is exactly what is currently going on regarding the situation of the Uighurs ’ population in China.

The Uighur case: a silent “cultural genocide”

Despite the inaction of the great heads of States, people and media start talking about the worsening situation of the Uighur minority. Big brands are pointed out, videos leak, survivors testify. Men and women lined up, blindfolded and hands tied; compelled sterilisation and even rumours of illegal organ trafficking… No one can keep ignoring the horror of what is going on in the Xinjiang region. Many NGOs are accusing China of different crimes against humanity: Human Rights Watch denounces unjustified arrests and acts of torture; exiled Uighur people talk about “ethnocide” (meaning the destruction of the cultural identity of an ethnic group, without necessarily harming people physically) and are supported by the NGO Genocide Watch which stated last July that a real genocide of the Uighur people was happening[1]. In spite of overwhelming proofs, forty-six States said they officially supported China, including a lot of countries inhabited by Muslim populations. Their announcement followed the publication of the letter addressed to the UN and signed by twenty-two countries, which was denouncing the “situation in Xinjiang”[2]. But no tangible measure has been taken, and, above all, the rule of stonewalling is widely followed: no mention, nowhere, of an “ethnocide”, even less of a “genocide”, be it “only” cultural. I am thus wondering, naive: why? Why is nothing being made? Why so many countries with a Muslim culture are indirectly supporting such a crushing of an also Muslim ethnic group like the Uighur one is? Why is no one using the exact, precise terms, so that to state tangibly what is happening in Xinjiang, and to move into action?

Collage on a wall in Bordeaux, France

What is a “genocide”?

In order to help me understand, I tried to do some research on the word “genocide” in itself, and on historical events that could fit to its definition. About this second point, I immediately make the connection with the Holocaust, the genocide of Jewish and Tzigane peoples committed by the Nazis. And of course, at school, I heard about other genocides, that of Armenian people or even that of the Tutsis in Rwanda. But that is far from enough. It is deplorable to ignore so much about such serious events, and I was dismayed when I opened the Wikipedia page which makes an inventory of all the “genocides” and “mass massacres”, forced to go through a never-ending list of names, countries and dates[3]. More distressed than enlightened, I ended up opening my good old Larousse dictionary[4], whose definition of the word “genocide” only reflects that of the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (CPPCG) from the UN, first ratified in 1948: “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 groups, 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.”[5] Those definitions seem to rule in my favour: can be considered as a genocide a cultural destruction (“mental harm”), not necessarily a physical one. Can also be considered as a genocide a technique used to “prevent births”. In short, this is exactly what the Chinese State is currently perpetrating on the Uighur minority. Why not then call a spade a “spade”?

Holocaust memorial in San Francisco, USA.

We should obviously take into consideration that accumulating tangible proofs, certain information and in general, real truth on highly complex facts is a very difficult task. Genocides are often the result of long and intricated socio-political histories hard to understand from a foreign point of view and are still at the heart of historical debates. But we should also take into consideration judiciaries and, above all, political factors. Even when many countries, or even UN’s international Courts officially recognise an act of genocide, the international consensus is almost never reached. It is the case for most of the genocides (the Holocaust excepted). Today, debates are still strong concerning the Armenian genocide, which happened between 1915 & 1916. Only twenty-nine States officially recognise it as a genocide, and among those that still contest it can be found the United-Kingdom, Israel and of course Turkey. Likewise, no later than in 2015, Russia used its veto against a UN’s project of resolution to recognise the massacre of Srebrenica, committed in 1995 by Serbian units against more than 8 000 Bosnian men, as a genocide. Bosnian people already had to wait six years before that a Court decision state that what happened in Srebrenica was a genocide (the worse perpetrated on the European ground since the Second World War), before rejecting in 2016 the responsibility of the Serbian State. The latter waited fifteen years to finally apologise for the massacre, without ever using the word “genocide”, fact that they still negate.

Memorial of the Armenian genocide in Yerevan, Armenia. Picture taken on the day of the genocide’s commemoration in 2014.

Language subtilities in politics: genocide, a taboo word.

Why is it so difficult for States to recognise massacres, and to call them as they are: genocides? Why is it so difficult even when the events belong to a long-gone past? Reasons seem to be always political: if Turkey came to recognise the Armenian genocide, it takes the risk to have to pay important amounts of compensation to descendants of victims and survivors. Above all, it would mean calling into question the very values of its State, as its founders apparently took part in the genocide.

                          In the end, I cannot prevent myself from thinking that officials do not accept to talk about genocides before they are finished – and so, victims dead and buried. Apart from the confusion that reigns at the time, strong political motivations prevent the use of the “G-word”, and so prevent action to be taken. What is going on China recalls other memories, older but not enough to play the “forgotten” card. In 1994, in Rwanda, more than 800 000 Tutsis died, partly because the international community refused to talk about “genocide”. While France kept the diplomatic relationships with the governing Hutus responsible of the genocide going[6], Israel was selling weapons to the Hutu government[7]; and the UK and the USA kept opposing to any kind of military intervention in Rwanda. After their failure in Somalia, the USA didn’t want to get militarily involved in Africa anymore, and thus refused to use the word “genocide” while referring to the situation in Rwanda, because if they did, it would have forced them to take military action in Rwanda, according to the conditions of the CPPCG they had signed – along with all the members of the UN. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis thus died because saying this was a genocide would have forced the Occidental countries to step in and send their soldiers in Rwanda, which they did not want to do.

Memorial of the genocide of the Tutsis in Kigali, Rwanda.

Things start to get clearer. Saying openly that China is perpetrating a genocide against the Uighur people means making an enemy of the first world economic power. We got to see how much China by itself could paralyse the whole world when the Covid-19 crisis started: stock market crash, interruption of the production… If Occidental countries and the UN can still take a stance, they only do it timidly[8]. As one can read in an article published by the French newspaper Libération a year ago: “the international community can no longer ignore the abuses committed on the Uighur population, but avoid the subject for fear of economic retaliation”[9]. More Precisely, saying openly that China is perpetrating a genocide against the Uighur minority means being forced to take military action against China. Considering the fragile current international situation, where the whole world literally depends for its survival on Chinese technology and savoir-faire, what do the lives of thousands of Xinjiang’s Uighur men and women represent?

I can only desperately notice that we recognise the acts of genocide more easily after they happened rather than while they’re happening. We are still very far from “preventing” the crime of genocide. At the most we are able to present to the justice the persons responsible of the genocide after the harm has been done. And on top of that, China is being intelligent enough to develop a “modern” genocide, perpetrated without blood nor dead bodies, planned on the long-term, made from birth control and forced integration; hoping maybe to justify the disappearing of a whole ethnic group by the natural work of time.

I cannot see a way to conclude this reflection on optimistic words, so I will let Gaël Faye’s words do the job for me. Gaël Faye is the author of Small Country[10], novel which partly deals with the Tutsis genocide. During lockdown, he wrote these words in an “inside letter” addressed to a friend[11]: “I do not believe that lockdown has silver linings, that those empty days have some virtue. This situation mainly confronts us to the failure of our societies and highlights our weaknesses. Of course, just like everybody, I try to forecast what will happen after, but I fear that the promises of the “Never again!” will not hold on farther in time than after the next adverts. This April reminds me that we come, you and I, from a history that shoots at point-blank range. In April 1994, the “Never again!” of the 20th century echoed through the void while our families disappeared from the face of the earth. It was twenty-six years ago amidst general indifference. What lessons have we learned from it? […] All our “Alas!”, our “What’s the point?” prepare patiently the ends of the world. But we can also change the course of events if we stop having doubts about the good we can do in the world.”[12]





[4] French equivalent for the Oxford dictionaries.

[5] See the Article II and following of the CPPCG:

[6] Until today the extent of the French State’s responsibility in the Tutsis genocide is still unclear and the diplomatic relationship between Rwanda and France are still very strained.

[7] Israel decided in 2016 to keep the archives of its weapons selling to Rwanda sealed in order not to “cause harm to Israel’s safety” à (’%C3%A9chec)

[8] Except for the USA, along the line of Donald Trump’s economic war against China.

[9] Unofficial translation made by the author of this article. The mentioned article: “Ouïghours: au Xinjiang, un lent et silencieux ‘génocide culturel’ » by Laurence Defranoux and Valentin Cebron, 05/09/2019 à

[10] « Petit Pays », a novel which has recently been adapted into a movie.

[11] « Lettres d’Intérieur », a radio transmission created during the lockdown by Augustin Trapenard in which authors, actors and other artists sent a letter to be read out loud by Trapenard during the radio transmission. « Je ne crois pas aux bons côtés du confinement, aux vertus de ces jours désemplis », Gaël Faye, « Lettres d’Intérieur » by Augustin Trapenard on radio France Inter, 28/04/2020 à

[12] Unofficial translation made by the author of this article. Ibid.


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