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Can ICC tame China over treatment of Uyghur Muslims?

Court urged to follow Rohingya precedent and prosecute China for crimes against Uyghur Muslims

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Can ICC tame China over treatment of Uyghur Muslims?

Watchtowers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a 're-education camp' where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained in China's Xinjiang region. It is estimated that 1-2 million people are detained in such camps. (Photo: AFP)

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If the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) decides to initiate a genocide probe against China, it will mark the first decisive action to change the fate of millions of Uyghur Muslims in China's largest administrative region.

After accepting a petition from representatives of the Uyghur Muslims, the ICC is caught in a Catch-22 situation as communist China does not accept the ICC jurisdiction. So, the court cannot try Chinese officials for their crimes against the Uyghurs in northwestern China.

However, it is now unsure if the international court will open an investigation in response to a July 6 memorandum submitted by the East Turkistan Government in Exile (ETGE) and the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM). It alleged genocide and crimes against 30 senior Chinese leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinpingand his predecessor Hu Jintao.

East Turkistan is the traditional name the Uyghurs use for their homeland.

Millions of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang are being detained for "re-education purposes," and this religious minority community is alleged to be subjected to modern-day slavery with their women being forced to undergo sterilization by the Chinese Communist Party.

China claims its policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are preventative and are purely internal affairs.

Myanmar route

As China does not recognize the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, the petitioners argue that the court should follow the Rohingya precedent. Although Myanmar does not recognize the Rome Statute, in 2018, the international court took up the Myanmar minority's case because crimes such as deportations of civilians took place in Bangladesh, a party to the court.

According to the 80-page petition, Uyghurs' deportations took place in Tajikistan and Cambodia, which are both parties to the ICC. The petition incorporates evidence of torture through electrocution and humiliation. They were forced to eat pork and drink alcohol and inserted IUD (intrauterine device) birth control among young women.

The petition, filed on behalf of the East Turkistan Government in exile, establishes that the ICC has jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed against the Uighur and other Turkic peoples, said Rodney Dixon, the British lawyer who represented the two Uyghur groups, said.

The London-based legal team, representing ETGE and ETNAM, has documented China's mass internment up to 1.8 million Uyghurs since April 2017. The team further said that more than 500,000 Uighur teenagers have been separated from their families and sent to "vocational camps."

The ICC, which handles cases of war crimes, takes up cases referred to it by a state party or the United Nations, or it can begin a preliminary examination propio motu (on one's own initiative).

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda of Gambia is currently examining the evidence to open a formal investigation against China.

Another legal route open to the ICC is that if there is sufficient evidence against Chinese Communist party officials, they could be held when they travel to other countries that accept ICC jurisdiction to try them.

France, for example, has set up a genocide unit to prosecute such offenses. Félicien Kabuga, wanted in the Rwanda genocide case, was arrested in May this year in France.

Another option, which has recently found many takers, is to start a prosecution against Chinese officials at the ICC. 

Dixon told media that it has been assumed that China is beyond the reach of ICC for far too long. "But it is no longer the case," he said.

Omer Kanat, executive director of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, said, "It's a positive thing to try. Chinese leaders should be held accountable for their crimes against humanity."

According to legal experts, the way the ICC handles the Uyghurs' case will define its legacy and future course of action.

Led by Washington, diplomatic pressure is increasing in China. The US administration has announced sanctions against Chinese officials, and Congress has already passed a law on the Uyghur Muslims.


Ben Joseph is journalist based in Kochi, Kerala. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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