Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

At the beginning of 2020 attention was once again brought to the crisis in China surrounding the persecution and potential genocide of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Much of the world learned about this crisis for the first time, and there was a widespread swell of uproar and anger about what was happening. However, the pandemic hit and global attention was diverted elsewhere. It is more important now than ever to keep the conversation alive and continue to spread awareness of the issue.

To briefly summarise what has been going on in the north-western Xinjiang region of China; Uighur Muslims are being targeted by the Chinese state. This religious minority are being held in ‘re-education’ camps where there have been reports of torture, rape and murder to ensure their subservience. Those who have escaped the camps have also reported being forced to eat pork, drink alcohol and denounce their God. Amnesty International has found that there are 1 million Muslims held, yet the Chinese government denies their existence and continues to claim that the camps are voluntary.

So what has changed recently to bring the issue to the fore of global discourse once again?

Well, a complaint against China has been referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by over 60 parliamentarians from 16 countries. This is a very assertive move from the international community and definitely takes positive steps to ending the crisis and getting justice for the victims. However, there is no guarantee that this will be effective as the ICC has a whole host issues surrounding it.

The main issue with relying on the ICC is that China is not party to the Rome Statute which founded the court. The Rome Statute gives the court mandate to try states or individuals in cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes. This is a limited mandate as the purpose of the court is to punish violations of human rights solely. When a state is not party to a treaty it means that it is not bound by the provisions and is not obliged to carry them out. In terms of the ICC that means that the court has no jurisdiction in China, so cannot try the Chinese government for the gross violations of human rights happening in Xinjiang. However, states have side-stepped this by using a precedent set in the case of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2019. This states that crimes committed on the territory of an ICC party state fall within its jurisdiction. In this case the forced deportation of Uighurs into Tajikistan and Cambodia allows the ICC to look into their case as both states are party to the Rome statute.

Whilst this may seem like a win for the Uighurs there is still a very long way to go before we can claim that justice has been done.

The ICC relies on states’ cooperation during their cases and can be weak in forcing states to submit to their will. For example individuals who have been indicted by the court like Joseph Kony from Uganda and Omar al-Bashir from Sudan were able to evade their arrest warrants for a very long time. Bashir was indicted in 2009 and was only submitted to the court in February 2020, Kony is still on the run from the court. This plainly shows that if the Chinese government choose not to cooperate with the court it would be very easy for them to protect the individuals indicted. The fact that China rejected the Rome Statute when it was first passed only adds to the argument that the ICC will likely run into many roadblocks when trying to achieve justice.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has historically only been willing to cooperate with the court on issues that do not affect China’s national interests. He has been intransigent over issues of justice and stopping the conflict in Syria due to his own interests and alliances with Bashar al-Assad. So there is little doubt that the Chinese administration will do all in its power to stop the ICC from gaining any traction in the case for Uighur Muslims.

Whilst the reality of international criminal justice remains an intensely political process, this is a glimmer of hope that the Uighur Muslim community may be freed from their torture soon. All we as individuals can do is continue to use our voices to raise awareness on the issue and encourage domestic politicians to do the same on the world stage. The ICC may have its operational pitfalls but it might just be the only way forward there is right now.