Symposium on the Uyghur Genocide

October 9, 2023

On November 6 and 7, Yale’s MacMillian Center hosted the “Symposium on the Uyghur Genocide,” featuring a stirking cultural exhibition, a keynote address from Mr. Dolqun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, and three panel discussions featuring diplomats, activists, and professors.

Thursday’s cultural exhibition provided background for the day that would follow, demonstrating both the resilience and beauty of the Uyghur community and culture. Introduced by Harvard Uyghur Student Kawsar Yasin and Dr. David Simon, the director of Yale Genocide Studies Program, the display included photographs of Uyghur homeland landscapes, images of missing Uygur scholars and religious leaders, as well as traditional Uyghur clothing. An Uyghur calligraphy artist wrote participants’ names on small pieces of paper turned souvenirs, and participants were given the opportunity to enjoy Uyghur delicacies. Seeing attendees wearing the traditional doppas and atlas designed dresses, and listening to kids perform Uyghur poetry, the participants were given an immersive experience of the Uyghur culture. Uyghur attendees expressed that the event was a piece of Watan–home. Dr. Rishat Abbas of the co-sponsoring Uyghur Academy emphasized the importance of institutional collaborations to celebrate the Uyghur culture that is facing ongoing erasure. 

Friday morning began with a keynote address from Mr. Dolqun Isa, President of World Uyghur Congress, joining virtually from Germany. He opened his remarks by providing context to the Uyghur genocide, and then noted that this December 9th marks the two year anniversary of the Uyghur Tribunal’s final judgement determining that the People Repbulic of China committed a genocide against Uyghurs. Although the tribunal has no power to sanction or enforce its judgment, Mr. Isa emphasized that the proceedings and verdict of the Uyghur tribunal serve as crucial tools of advocacy. Concluding, Mr. Isa voiced that although ten parliaments and the US governments have ruled that violations committed against Uyghurs amount to genocide or crimes against humanity, the human rights abuses continue in East Turkestan. 

The first panel of the day, “Uyghur Genocide: Political Threats to Culture and Family,” featured a five panelists, each of whom discussed different facets of the genocide, from international reactions and possible intervention, to the specifics of the oppression Uyghurs are facing. The panel opened with Mr. Scott Worden, the director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Mr. Worden discussed the USIP’s approach to the Uyghur Genocide: proritzing cultural preservation by language learning, focusing on youth and amplifying Uyghur community actions. He noted that this type of action is “a positive news story that people can get behind and for.”

Next, the room heard from Professor Rebecca Clothey of Drexel University. Professor Clothey began with an analysis of Article 4 of the Chinese Constitution, which grants freedom and a right for different ethnic groups in China to use and develop their own written and spoken languages. She discussed the suppression of Uyghur education and the Uyghur language, and the dire impact these forms of censorship may have: she concludes that, currently, the sustainability of the Uyghur language is at grave risk.

Following Professor Clothey was Dr. Alim Alp, the Uyghur Yale Visiting Scholar. Dr. Alp opened by discussing CCP genocidal crimes that target the family specifically, including a quartering system and the forced marriage of women to Han men. Dr. Alp remarked that perhaps the most clear act of genocide in this case is the forced sterilization of Uyghur women. He also spoke on the separation of children from their parents and culture, and how even Uyghur children are not spared from the genocide.

Dr. Sean Roberts of George Washington University brought up the reeducation and forced labor camps that 10% of the adult Uyghur population have been subject to. He noted that listening to the voices of Uyghur exiles is of immense importance to understanding the extent of the ongoing suffering. He acknowledged the difficulty of exiles experiencing genocide in absentia, and the struggle to both fight against repression and carry on their culture as immigrants scattered across the globe. Dr. Roberts concluded by sharing the letter of an Uyghur woman to her detained husband where she shared her trauma and hope for the day they would reunite. By the end of his remarks, most of the attendees and speakers were in tears. 

Next, Ms. Elfidar Iltebir offered remarks on the continued existence of checkpoints and camps, though recent news states otherwise. Building upon the remarks of the other panelists, Ms. Iltebir stressed that we look to the bans on the religious freedom of Uyghurs. In addition, Ms. Ilebir discussed transnational repression, sharing her personal experiences of facing threats against herself and family members who remain in China.

The second panel of the day, “Assessing Global Reactions to the Uygur Crisis” featured a new set of panelists and brought together perspectives from activism, scholarly circles, government, and non-governmental organizations on how individuals, governments, and the world should respond to the ongoing genocide.

Mathew Parkes of the Afghanistan and Central Asia Department of the USIP began by stating numerous avenues that the USIP is exploring to legally hold China accountable for its actions. For example, universal jurisdiction in Argentina and investigating the import of Uyghur forced labor products to the United States. Mr. Parkes recommended that U.S. and other like-minded actors release a statement on the ongoing events in China on Genocide Awareness Day on December 9th. In addition, he supports the passage of a transnational repression bill, and opening forums that allow Uyghurs to speak out.

Dr. James Millward, Professor of History at Georgetown University, followed, first emphasizing that all “minoritized” groups in China are threatened currently. He noted his use of the word “minoritized” given that different ethnic groups are not minorities in their own homelands. Dr. Millward called on teachers and experts to be intentional about changing the common Chinese narrative that China is the oldest continuous state in the world that has always controlled the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongols. He emphasized that rather than blindly repeating Chinese propaganda historical accounts, political scientists should be comparing China’s settler colonization of non-sinatic people to the Western sprawl of the United States and thinking about the legacy of that colonization today. 

Next, Sophie Richardson, the China Director at Human Rights Watch, acknowledged statements that some democratic governments have produced with determinations of genocide, but stated that such statements must be specifically critical of China. Another important response to the genocide, she noted, is the sanctioning of officials and companies. She concluded by highlighting the inconsistency of President Biden’s adittude towards China, as he calls what is occurring a genocide campaign while welcoming President Xi to the United States; she stated that President Biden must always be challenging Xi.

The panel then heard from Ms. Jewher Ilham, an advocate and author. Ms. Ilham focused on the mass detention and forced labor of Uyghurs. She described these experiences, specifically the inhuman treatment individuals face in camps, including sexual abuse. She called on companies to keep ethical supply standards in all countries. She concluded with a suggestion for the average person: be aware of the clothing and products you buy. “It is okay to spend a few minutes researching where our products come from.”  (please visit the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition’s website)

Finally, Ms. Rayhan Asat of the Atlantic Council offered remarks. She described organizing the March for Uyghur Freedom during last year’s Harvard-Yale game, and her calls for students to engage with campus advocacy for Uyghurs. Ms. Asat continued by discussing the impossibility for legal justice for Uyghurs in China, and her fear that the genocide will eventually be normalized in the media. She explained that although an OHCHR report stated that the crimes against Uyghurs amount to crimes against humanity, it did not include next steps to address the crisis. She vocalized that countries are “giving the green light” for China to continue committing atrocities by refusing to take more direct actions or give more direct statements. Finally, when asked about Chinese students on U.S. college campuses, Ms. Asat proposed that although some try to stifle awareness, Chinese students should be challenged and provided information. 

The symposium concluded with a roundtable discussion featuring the day’s panelists, in which they discussed the question of “What happens next?” Moderated by Dr. David Simon and Mr. Omer Kanat (Uyghur Human Rights Project), the discussion began with the question of genocide prevention. Dr. Simon noted the difficulty of analyzing genocides that didn’t happen; and instead we can look to ones that ended through reassertion of dignity and control, like in South America.

Ms. Asat reiterated a common theme of the symposium, that world leaders must take a stronger stance regarding the Uyghur Genocide. Diplomacy can be a tool, and she urges the U.S. and others to use it. Ms. Jewher remarked upon the necessity of good documentation when it comes to the genocide, and in particular ensuring that video and other evidence is collected and saved safely. Furthermore, she noted that institutions like Yale can give funding and resources to organizations doing this work, such as the Xinjiang database project. Mr. Parkes emphasized the importance of addressing electronic disinformation while obtaining information, such as by AI generated disinformation or propaganda. In addition, the importance of granting Uyghurs refugee status and the U.S. welcoming more Uyghurs was noted by the panel.

Panelists concluded the event by reiterating their calls to action for governments, organizations, and average citizens alike– and reminding the audience that there is work to be done.

Written by Amal Al Tareb YC ‘22 and Carolina Melendez Lucas YC ‘27