These acts will also set a precedent the international community will regret for generations, both in terms of the human cost and the undermining of many gains made in human rights over the past several decades.
Dec. 9 marked the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime.
The day also marked the 72nd anniversary of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which recognizes the duty to prevent and punish this crime. The convention entered into force in 1951 and was signed by Canada on Sept. 3, 1952.
The convention was the first human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It committed to never again allow the atrocities of the Second World War to be repeated, and to punish any perpetrator, whether constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.
Dec. 9, 2020, once again featured well-written speeches, statements and new commitments by officials everywhere. It’s their moral duty.
But over 70 years, the convention, statements and commitments have done little to prevent genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, Srebrenica, Myanmar, Syria and Eritrea, among so many others.
At the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust in 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said:
“It would be a dangerous error to think of the Holocaust as simply the result of the insanity of a group of criminal Nazis. On the contrary, the Holocaust was the culmination of millennia of hatred and discrimination targeting the Jews – what we now call anti-Semitism.”
History has shown that genocides don’t start with gas chambers or massacres. Genocide is the outcome of nationalistic, populist movements that tolerate hate speech, discrimination, incite violence and dehumanize the other.
The holocausts in Rwanda, Cambodia, Srebrenica, Armenia and Myanmar are just some of the more well known, at least to those who are either interested or those whose lives were touched by these events.
The reality is that even these horrific events are largely forgotten, gently pushed into the archives of our memories and only held above the unconscious because of some sense of responsibility to commemorate them. After the ceremonies, we can go back to our lives, forget history’s lessons and ignore our complicity in the emergence of new atrocities.
So what should we make of the persistence of human rights abuses, the proliferation of internment camps, forced sterilization, enslaved labour, the sale of products made by or from those in internment, and instances of mass surveillance that abound around the globe today?
Unfortunately, too few citizens – who should impact the public policies and agendas of their politicians – are aware of the victimization of hundreds of thousands occurring today. Safe in this knowledge, politicians and bureaucrats can make statements and commitments, knowing it’s unlikely they will receive any undeflectable blame for their inaction and wilful blindness.
At the United Nations’ 2005 World Summit, member states committed to protecting their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, as well as against the incitement of the same. They agreed that when states need help to fulfil that responsibility, the international community must be ready. And when states fail to protect their populations, the international community must be ready to take action.
Numerous countries today are failing to prevent crimes against humanity. Many even incite such crimes.
It would be an error to think of human rights abuses, systemic persecution of minorities and genocide as simply the result of the insanity of criminals. On the contrary, atrocities are the culmination of unchecked hatred and discrimination targeting the vulnerable.
They are also the result of the observer’s wilful blindness and complacency.
There are undeniable signs of rising extremism, nationalism and systemic persecution of large groups of people around the world.
There’s verifiable evidence of state-sanctioned persecution of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur citizens in Xinjiang and the eastern Turkestan region of China. According to the U.S. State Department, 800,000 to possibly more than two million Uyghurs have been interned for religious behaviour deemed “extremist,” such as having an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil, accessing religious materials online or participating in other “illegal” religious activities.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has obtained classified Chinese government documents, including a memo sent by the deputy secretary of Xinjiang’s Communist Party, with instructions that the camps should be run as high-security prisons, with discipline, punishment and no escapes.
ICIJ has confirmed that what the Chinese call voluntary education centres are high-security prisons for the arbitrary and systematic brainwashing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. The evidence supports allegations of genocide against China’s top leadership.
In Canada, a House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights investigated, hearing testimony from witnesses who survived the concentration camps. Witnesses described “deplorable” conditions, including psychological, physical and sexual abuse, to force assimilation and indoctrination into the dominant Chinese culture. The subcommittee urged the government to take action.
Canada has a responsibility to protect Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims under the international standards it helped establish. Protection can come in many forms, including the use of sanctions.
China’s reaction was predictable. A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry retorted that the “so-called genocide” is a rumour and a farce fabricated by some anti-Chinese forces to slander China, and that the statements were groundless and full of lies and disinformation. He rejected the subcommittee’s findings as blatant interference in China’s internal affairs, warning parliamentarians to “avoid doing any further damage to China-Canada relations.”
Undeterred, 64 members of Parliament – including former Green Party leader Elizabeth May, a substantial portion of the Conservative caucus and two Liberal backbenchers – signed a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demanding that Canada levy sanctions against China in response to human rights abuses perpetrated against Uyghurs.
China is clearly emboldened by its emerging international influence and not shy about bullying its critics into compliance on matters of political, economic and strategic interest to China.
An increasing number of countries must contend with the colossal bullying power of an emergent China. As potent as its military is, China’s economic might and its huge consumer market have become even more powerful weapons as it manoeuvres to become a dominant superpower.
Countries that turn a blind eye to China’s internal affairs can expect access to its market, while those that don’t can expect sanctions and isolation.
Canadians have first-hand experience of China’s wrath as a consequence of the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. She was arrested in accordance with the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, to which Canada and China are signatories.
Nonetheless, China has sought extrajudicial consideration in Meng’s case to circumvent her extradition to the United States. In retaliation, China has detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor since December 2018. China has also initiated trade action against Canadian farmers.
Other countries have been similarly targeted by the Chinese.
Joseph Borrell, foreign policy chief for the European Union, notes that the EU has grown “more realistic and assertive” in its approach to China.
Canada has so far held a steady hand in leading a measured and co-ordinated response to China’s human rights violations. That approach may have to be reconsidered.
In the Asian hemisphere, Australia, Japan, America, and India have initiated “quadrilateral dialogue” or “the Quad” to counter China’s increasing sphere of influence. The Quad is strengthening its alliance through naval exercises, logistical support, and sharing of technological and geospatial intelligence.
However, the Quad seems to ignore the fact that India has also demonstrated increasing disregard for human rights. A case in point is the Delhi riots last winter that left 53 dead; civil servants were complicit in inciting violence against mostly Muslim protesters.
The Indian government’s unilateral actions in Jammu and Kashmir have caused enormous suffering and rights violations. They have failed to protect religious minorities, and instituted draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws to silence peaceful dissent.
In October, intent on squelching any independent scrutiny of India’s human rights problems, the BJP government froze Amnesty International’s assets.
According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2020, mob violence against minorities, especially Muslims, by extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling BJP continues.
According to Freedom House, there has also been a marked attack on the press under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition and hate-speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to curb critical voices in the media.
Hindu nationalist campaigns aim to discourage forms of expression deemed “anti-national.” Journalists risk harassment, death threats and violence in the course of their work.
The annual report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom places India alongside Pakistan, China and North Korea. It calls India a “country of particular concern.”
India’s inclusion in the new axis for controlling China’s influence across Asia and the Pacific has unintended consequences. There are increasing concerns that India is sleep-walking into authoritarianism under the influence of Modi’s politics of religious polarization and renewed nationalism.
Canada has been a leader in advancing democracy around the globe, and promoting and protecting human rights.
Canada and other middle powers can expect to be increasingly tested on their resolve to protect and enforce agreements and standards of human rights around the world.
And while governments and institutions must do their part, it’s up to citizens as well. To advance the work of human rights institutions around the world, we must be informed, and advocate for policies that reflect and promote our national interests and values.
We must speak up and demand to be heard.
Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy who served as a police officer for 29 years.
Anil is one of our contributors. For interview requests, click here.