But by the same token, we must seek and face the bitter truth when evidence of genocide appears. We owe it to the millions of ghosts from the last century—victims not only of genocide, but of denial, appeasement, bureaucratic dithering, prejudice and indifference. Even more, we owe it to people at risk today, like the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, China. Make no mistake, free and democratic nations today face a moral test the likes of which have not been seen since the onset of Nazi Germany’s (largely successful) effort to exterminate Europe’s Jews.

Today, we know and should understand more. Since it came into force in 1951, we have the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The Convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Like all international treaties concerning humanitarian issues, the Genocide Convention rests on a foundation of national sovereignty and self-regulation. It obligates states to prosecute those who incite genocide, those who conspire and perpetrate the international crimes it includes, and those who are complicit.

Xinjiang during coronavirus
Xinjiang during coronavirusDAVID LIU/GETTY IMAGES

In a future, democratic China, perpetrators of the crimes in Xinjiang will hopefully be fairly tried by independent courts. But this is the specter paradoxically driving the genocidal dynamic in China, and we need only refer again to Nazi Germany for insights into its internal logic. There, the policy of extermination assumed a thoroughly apocalyptic form; knowing their crimes would be punished hardened the Nazis’ position, and they accelerated their crimes as the Allied Powers closed in on Berlin. The persecution of the Uyghurs is part of a racist-nationalist strategy to mobilize the Han Chinese by demonizing minority groups—a project which will end in disaster for its architects if it fails. Potential witnesses must be silenced or destroyed. Huge numbers of Chinese Communist officials are apparently more strongly committed to the preservation of their inhuman regime precisely because they face trials and retribution if it falls.

The Genocide Convention has 152 contracting parties, but offers those parties no real leverage for constraining states on the verge of committing a crime. The International Criminal Court could take up the issue, even though China is not a party to the Court’s underlying treaty. Unfortunately, the politics of multilateral human rights organizations and international courts may encourage high-minded posturing, but they mitigate against decisive actions, as good-faith efforts to use available tools encounter paralysis and moral equivalence.

Realistically, the only way the atrocities against the Uyghurs will end is by international concerted efforts led by the bilateral actions of powerful states—and those of the Chinese people themselves. Some Muslim states have oil-based leverage on China, but have shamefully ignored the problem; Iran has even entered into an alliance with China. Germany, the strongest country in Europe, is waffling.

In this situation, the United States government has taken the lead with legislation and sanctions. In June, President Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 into law. The Chinese government said the bill “wantonly smeared China’s counter-terrorism and anti-radicalization efforts.”

Dr. Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizens Power Initiatives for China. Dr. Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe.

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.