Rayhan Asat (C), a human rights lawyer of Uyghur origin, listens during a panel discussion on human rights in Asia during the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity in Jeju Island, South Korea on Wednesday. Photo by Darryl Coote/UPI
JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, June 5 (UPI) -- Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, democratic governments moved to formally declare that China is committing genocide and human rights atrocities against its Uyghur Muslim minority population.
But as the world emerges from the health crisis and diplomacy normalizes, punitive measures to hold the regime of President Xi Jinping accountable have stalled and attention on the issue has waned.
Rayhan Asat, a leading human rights lawyer of Uyghur origin, told UPI on the sidelines of the 18th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity last week that genocide declarations need to be more than words. They need to bite.
"Genocide determination is absolutely deserving and I'm glad governments and parliaments around the world did atrocity determination, but you cannot determine something as genocide without taking meaningful action," she said.
Since 2017, China has been credibly and repeatedly accused of arbitrarily detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in so-called re-education camps in China's northwestern Xinjiang, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which is rich in natural resources and a major source of agricultural production.
During the height of the pandemic in 2021, the United States, under President Donald Trump, declared that China's treatment of Uyghurs amounts to genocide.
The United States maintains that China has arbitrarily imprisoned Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where they are subjected to forced sterilization, torture, forced labor and draconian restrictions on freedom of religion, expression and movement.
Canada's Parliament followed by overwhelmingly voting to declare the People's Republic of China is perpetrating genocide.
Other democratic governments have acted similarly, and trade restrictions on goods made with forced Uyghur labor and sanctions on Chinese perpetrators of human rights abuses have been imposed by some.
But Asat said those punitive actions did not go far enough and the priorities of governments have changed as borders have reopened and diplomacy normalizes amid re-engagement with international partners to boost economic recovery.
"Now, government leaders start to go to China; government officials in China start to visit other countries. And there's almost this normalization of this regime that is committing genocide," she said.
"It's very difficult for us to see those smiley photo ops where governments are shaking hands as if everything is normal. It's very difficult for me to watch it. And I can imagine every member of the Uyghur community."
China has repeatedly and vehemently denied the allegations that it is committing genocide or human rights abuses against the Uyghurs, stating that the concentration camps are re-education facilities needed to stamp out terrorism and separatism, while urging foreign nations that raise the issue to stop meddling in its internal affairs.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin in March 2022 called the claim of genocide "the lie of the century" that attempts to denigrate the Asian nation to undermine its "ethnic unity" and undercut its development.
Asat said China is using its strategic competition with the United States to frame the issue as Washington's insecurity about Beijing's growing influence on the world stage -- and for some, it may be working.
She pointed to French President Emmanuel Macron's trip in April to China for an official state visit, which was accompanied by all the pomp and circumstance.
Macron did not seemingly raise the issue of human rights abuses committed by China during the trip, with a joint statement by France and China stating that they "highlight the importance for the development of each country of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms in line with the goals and principles of The Charter of the United Nations."
Asat interprets Macron's failure to raise the issue as not wanting to jeopardize France's business interests with China.
She said that China is deploying a charm offensive, with the goal of creating a divide between the United States and Europe.
And this so-called offensive may be working. During his trip, Macron told reporters that the continent shouldn't be a U.S. "vassal" and that because they are allies "doesn't mean we no longer have the right to think for ourselves and are going to follow the most hardline people in a country that is our ally."
"They are deploying diplomats around the world. And I think [they're] buying it," Asat said.
"We cannot afford to have this division between Western democracies to say this is only the United States' problem to address. It has to be collective problems with the entire West, as well as with other countries."
The economic incentives China presents are a reason why the Uyghur issue has gone comparatively dormant -- and this attitude extends not only to businesses willing to jeopardize their ethical mottos if it affects their business dealings with China but also with high-profile players in Hollywood.
High-profile actors have raised their voices on issues such as genocide committed in Sudan's Darfur or against the Yezidi or Rohingya, but they come mum when the perpetrator is China, a cash cow in the entertainment industry, where they have vested business interests, she said.
This is why she is calling for collective action when it comes to imposing costs on China for its human rights abuses because the issue, though seemingly remote, affects everyone, every government and every business.
The issue has even permeated such causes as the fight against climate change as most solar panels, for instance, are made in China with components connected to forced Uyghur labor.
"The Uyghur force is becoming the drivers of China's economy," she said.
This fight is also personal for Asat as her brother, Ekpar Asat, has been imprisoned in Xinjiang since April 2016, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In January 2020, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for "inciting ethnic hatred." He was the founder of a Uyghur-language website and was detained for "inciting ethnic hatred," the U.S. commission said.
Asat told UPI that she often feels she cannot discuss the suffering of her brother as she has become an advocate for the whole community, but that his family was able to speak with him last month via a video call.
The calls occur only sporadically, she said, adding that her family must go to a police station where the conversation is monitored.
"He looked like a shadow of his former self," she said. "Because he also spent a lot of time in solitary confinement, he developed a lot of dark spots on his face, a lot of wrinkles for a very young man."