Understanding Genocide: Canada’s Response to the Uyghur Crisis

Canada's lack-lustre response to the Uyghur genocide has received criticism across the country over the past several weeks. This specifically follows the Cabinet’s decision to abstain from a vote in Parliament which would recognize the systemic violence against China’s Uyghur population as a genocide. How Canada has addressed this issue is a subject of ongoing debate in many communities.

Last week, U of T’s Multi-Faith Centre, along with the Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom, World Uyghur Congress, Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, and the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, hosted an event regarding the ongoing crisis. The five panelists discussed the negligence of the international community, Canada’s response to the crisis, and the role of institutions and students in advocating for groups that are targets of violence. 

It’s important to note that the international community, specifically international organizations like the UN, have consistently turned a blind eye on the genocide of ethnic minorities. Powerful countries are often hesitant to acknowledge genocides, in fear of economic or political sanctions. This international failure was especially prominent during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, where the UN and other major nations failed to come to the defence of the persecuted Tutsi ethnic group. After the Rwandan genocide, the Office on Genocide Prevention was created at the UN, yet the Uyghurs are not mentioned anywhere on the site. John Packer, Professor of Law at UOttawa, emphasized the importance of acting before it is too late, stressing that reconciliation after the damage is done is meaningless without active engagement when it matters most. 

Nearly every speaker mentioned at some point during the discussion that genocides are often years in the making, where violence gets progressively worse. For the Uyghur population in China, the abuses against them have been growing steadily since 2014. Despite the escalating violence, little has been done to help. Zumretay Arkin, Program and Advocacy Manager at the World Uyghur Congress, spoke about how the UN has neglected the Uyghur people. She commented that members who have advocated for Uyghur freedom have been kicked out of meetings after having been accused of “politicizing human rights”. As a Uyghur Canadian, Arkin stated that the stress of having to save your people feels like an enormous weight, especially considering little support has been given from the international community. 

Yonah Diamond, an international human rights lawyer, specifically addressed the inhumane treatment of Uyghur Muslims by noting the documented torture, executions, and sexual violence that takes place within the camps. Moreover, while Uyghur men are detained, Uyghur women are often sterilized, with the goal being to destroy the regenerative and reproductive capabilities of the group. Religious degradation has also been a key element of the genocide, where, in addition to mass detainment, mosques have been destroyed, books and religious documents have been burned, and certain types of clothing and religious symbols have been banned. Rayhan Asat, advocate and human rights lawyer, mentioned that one of the main goals is to break the Uyghurs’ connection to their religion and culture, in an attempt to carry out cultural genocide as well. 

For Rayhan Asat, the treatment of the Uyghur population has personally and deeply affected her life. Asat’s brother, Ekpar Asat, is one of the many Uyghur Muslims in China’s internment camps. She highlighted that her brother was a model citizen, but was detained without trial regardless. In light of Ekpar’s disappearance, an online social media campaign, “Free Ekpar,” was started by Rayhan to raise awareness.

From the Canadian perspective, Garnett Genuis MP, outlined the failures of the Liberal government in choosing to abstain from the vote in parliament, which would recognize the actions of the Chinese government as falling under the UN’s “Genocide Convention”. Genuis also noted that, although no Liberal Cabinet members voted, members of the Liberal caucus supported the motion. This essentially meant that the government sidestepped the opportunity to condemn China, while also being able to tell their constituency that their Liberal MPs voted in favour of the motion. Genuis emphasized that it is the executive branch and not the legislative branch that represents Canada on the international stage, meaning that Canada has ultimately failed to recognize the genocide. 

Although we can’t force the government to take action, Canadian citizens can play a role in demanding the Liberal party to take a stance, rather than accepting their current decision to turn a blind eye. Emailing and calling your MP, and asking what they’re doing to address the atrocities against the Uyghur population, is one way students could help. The event programmer and Multi-Faith Centre intern, Jacob Kates Rose, also mentioned the impact of starting an advocacy group within your own community. Speaking from personal experience, he believes it opens up opportunities to connect with other advocates, and helps raise awareness. Yonah Diamond also stressed the importance of amplifying Uyghur voices, specifically considering their voices are being actively repressed.

If the subject interests you, I recommend researching it for yourself. As university students, it’s important that we engage in matters of social and political injustice. Not only because we can ask more of our political representatives, and advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves, but also because our generation will soon be in the position to make decisions that differ from our predecessors. 

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