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Spotlight turns to Uyghurs in China, as world remembers the Holocaust

But world leaders step back from calling it genocide

As the world remembered the millions of victims of the Holocaust on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27,  it has helped shine a light on the current treatment of the Uygher in China who some say are facing a genocide of their own.

Increasingly the world is becoming more aware of the situation of the Uyghur in China — even during the most severe health crisis to hit the planet since the Spanish Flu 100 years ago — where as many as 1.5 million people are being held in what some call concentration camps.

Uygurs in a camp in China

Although the Holocaust is most closely associated with the millions of Jewish peoople who were murdered in Nazi Germany before and during World War II, other and more recent genocides are now marked as well on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. That includes three million killed in Cambodia, the 800,000 Tutsi who were killed in Rwanda in the 19990s, the 100,000 people killed in Bosnia and lastly the ongoing murder of some 400,000 Darfuri people in Sudan.

There is so much going on in the world right now, thanks to the pandemic which originated in China, that not much attention has been paid to the escalating lockdown of the Uyghur. China may believe that now is an excellent opportunity to harden its crackdown on these people.


Previously the US had resisted attacking China on its Uyghur policy, as it didn’t want to damage trade.

On Donald Trump’s last day in office his administration declared China’s actions against Uyghur constituted “genocide”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China’s Communist Party of “crimes against humanity” for its treatment of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities. | Photo: Andrew Harnik, Pool/AP

On January 19, when on his last day in office US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “After careful examination of the available facts, I have determined that the [People’s Republic of China], under the direction and control of the [Chinese Communist Party], has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,”

“I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state,” Pompeo said.

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden spoke out against the genocide. In August he said “The unspeakable oppression that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of China’s authoritarian government is genocide and Joe Biden stands against it in the strongest terms.”

BLINKEN… China’s actions speak to an effort to commit genocide

So that was clear enough. And after Pompeo called it genocide, Biden’s new Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed saying: “That would be my judgment as well.” He went further, and added “The forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect re-educate them to be adherents to the Chinese Communist Party – all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”

But afterwards Biden appeared to back track a bit, as his lengthy statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day released by the White House, made no reference to what is happening to the Uyghur in China.

The closest he got was in his final paragraph:

“When hatred goes unchecked, and when the checks and balances in government and society that protect fundamental freedoms are lost, violence and mass atrocities can result. The United States will continue to champion justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs. We are committed to helping build a world in which the lessons of the Holocaust are taught and in which all human lives are valued.”

Joe Biden in a yarmulke

So it would appear that the US may be side-stepping having to take  a much harder line against China and how it is treating the minority Uyghur.


Similarly, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will want to create a trade deal with the Chinese economy, has not come out strongly against China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority – though he did refer to China’s policy as “utterly abhorrent.”

Not much from the Prime Minister at PMQ in parliament

On Wednesday before going to parliament to answer Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson tweeted: “Nothing will stop us remembering the unique horror of the Holocaust and recommitting to root out antisemitism.”

But leader of the opposition Keir Starmer was much more upfront and came out against the treatment of the Uyghur in China.

STARMER… Labour condemns the persecution of the Uyghur community in China

“Labour condemns the persecution of the Uyghur community in China. We will be supporting amendments in Parliament today to ensure Britain never turns a blind eye to genocide,” Starmer tweeted on January 27.

With his tweet he retweeted News Editor and co-publisher of the Jewish News Justin Cohen who said “Only once before have we published a special front page in additional to the weekly newspaper. Until today. But it doesn’t get more urgent than the light of the Uyghurs.” That included a front page from the UK paper Jewish News with the headline “Stop Ughur genocide – our urgent message to MPs ahead of today’s crucial China trade vote.

The front page from the Jewish News

The Holocaust was a topic of conversation in the House of commons on Wednesday, as the nation and world marked Holocaust Memorial Day.

Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle said “it is now for the world to unite against persecution and genocide –no more genocide, that’s got to be the answer”, and condemned the treatment of the Uyghurs in China.


Like Johnson, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t want to step on China’s toes when he gave his message on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Canada’s Trudeau shakes hands with China’s Xi

“More than six million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime, and countless others suffered under the heinous crimes they perpetrated. The pain and loss endured during the Shoah must never be forgotten – and together, we must vow: Never Again. #WeRemember,” Trudeau tweeted.


China has spoken out against the US accusation of genocide. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry rubbished the claim by Pompeo earlier this month.

Chinese President Xi Jinping Photo: AP/Mike Hutchings/Pool

“We see this so-called determination as a piece of waste paper,” the Chinese spokesman said.  

“We hope the new US administration can have their own reasonable and cool-minded judgment of Xinjiang issues.”

China has denied that the numbers of Uyghurs in the camps are as high as 1.5 million. It says that the the camps are vocational centres to teach skills to reduce the attraction of Islamic radicalism following a series of attacks.


The UN convention on genocide was drafted in the 1940s with the Holocaust still fresh in mind. It was adopted by the General Assembly on 9 December 1948, and calls on states to prevent and punish what it calls an “odious scourge.”

The United Nations in New York City

The UN says that “Its adoption marked a crucial step towards the development of international human rights and international criminal law as we know it today.”

The UN says that the “Genocide Convention has been ratified or acceded to by 152 States (as of July 2019). Other 42 United Nations Member States have yet to do so. From those, 19 are from Africa, 17 from Asia and 6 from America.” China is not one of those countries.

Countries in light blue have not signed the UN convention on genocide


The Uyghur (sometimes spelt Uighur) is a relatively new name for the people of Turkish descent who have lived mainly in China’s north-west region of Xinjiang. They look completely different from China’s Han majority, have European and East Asian DNA and speak a language that is linked to Turkish.

Ethnic Uighur demonstrators take part in a protest against China in Istanbul, Turkey on October 1, 2020 Photo: Murad Sezer/Reuters

These people lived in desert oases and became largely Muslim from the 1600s. There is some debate over the size of the population, ranging from a low of about 12 million people to as high as 20 million or even more.

The Uyghur are considered to be one of China’s 55 separate ethnic groups. The Han make up about 95 percent of China’s population of 1.4 billion people. The Uyghur make up perhaps less than 0.15 percent of the population.

The Uyghurs are mainly based in the Xinjiang province in the north west corner of China

With concern over violence in Xinjiang linked with Muslim extremists and possibly over other Muslim extremists in other parts of the world, China started to put the Uyghur under increasingly tight restrictions from the 1990s.

A view of Xinjiang

Many of them have been detained in camps, possibly some 1.5 million people. It is said that they are re-educated there, so that they will give up their Uyghur culture and the Muslim religion, and that some women are even sterilized. And it is also believed that they may made into slaves.

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