Opinion: Estonia must recognize Chinese genocide in Xinjiang

Iverson Ng and Oliver Loode.
Iverson Ng and Oliver Loode. Source: Authors' private collection.

During February 4-20, China is organizing the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. For over a year, a group of US-based Tibetans, Hongkongers and Uyghurs have been campaigning for a global boycott against the games. So far, 10 countries including Estonia and Lithuania joined the diplomatic boycott. While the Estonian government subtly participates in the US-led diplomatic boycott, it should recognize China's act of genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, write indigenous people's rights expert Oliver Loode and Postimees columnist Iverson Ng.

Uyghurs - the most persecuted indigenous people on Earth

Given the 56 separate ethnicities recognized in China, it does not recognize any of them as Indigenous peoples in accordance with international law. Many Chinese ethnic groups, including Uyghurs, meet all or most informal criteria of indigenous peoples.

Uyghurs stand out for their distinct cultural, religious and linguistic identity, though they are a non-dominant group in China.

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a global community of Uyghurs, has been conducting international advocacy as an exercise of Uyghurs' right to self-determination. While Uyghur representatives cannot be often seen at global Indigenous peoples' gatherings such as the annual sessions of UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), it happens so because of Chinese intimidation.

In April 2017, one of our group personally witnessed how Dolkun Isa, founder of WUC, was brutally forced out of the UNPFII plenary session in New York by Chinese-backed UN security guards. China will do anything to deny Uyghurs their right to self-identify as indigenous peoples, with the resulting collective rights, but this should not blind the rest of the world.

Given the systematic and sustained efforts of China's actions and the unprecedented human, financial and technological resources that China has amassed against the Uyghur people, they are probably the most persecuted indigenous people on Earth.

In Estonia, due to its decades-long commitment to supporting the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide - including, but not limited to Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia - the moral responsibility and national mission that the country has in speaking the truth when genocide is perpetrated against one of the world's indigenous peoples should be understood, as should be holding the perpetrator accountable.

Naming a genocide as such by the Riigikogu is the least that Estonia, as a signatory to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, can and should do.

An evidence-based approach to understand the Xinjiang Genocide

On September 9 2021, a British-led independent Uyghur Tribunal concluded that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has committed crimes against humanity of enslavement, torture, rape, enforced sterilization which constitute the act of genocide in Xinjiang.

Chaired by British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the people's tribunal reviewed over 500 witness statements, heard live evidence of over 30 political dissidents on the Chinese concentration camp system as well as 40 expert witnesses on the situation in Xinjiang.

With independent research and investigations, it uncovered not only the Chinese government's genocidal intention, but also its structure and decision-making process to commit such crimes.

Estonia's international obligation in recognizing the Genocide

As a member of the international community, it is Estonia's duty to call out China's systematic and intentional act of genocide in Xinjiang. On March 8 2021, as an independent and non-partisan initiative, about 50 global experts in international law, genocide studies, Chinese ethnic policies and Xinjiang conducted a 55-page research report and concluded that China is responsible for breaches of all provisions of Article II of the 1948 Genocide Convention, including the intent to destroy the whole population of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Being part of the EU, solidarity is needed to back initiatives with moral leadership. In the case of Xinjiang genocide, eight liberal democracies, including five EU countries (the Netherlands, Lithuania, Belgium, the Czech Republic and most recently France) have recognized the genocide in their national parliaments. European unity is what the EU-27 bloc needs right now, and as a small country, Estonia relies on that for its own survival in the international arena.

More importantly, Estonia's moral duty is also embedded at the European level. In December 2020, the European Parliament passed a resolution on forced labor and the situation of Uyghurs. With over 600 out of 705 Members of European Parliament's support, the EP called on the Chinese government to end the "mass incarceration" of ethnic minorities in camps and detention centers and demand the immediate and unconditional release of those detained. Instead of addressing the issue itself, the CCP responded with anti-sanctions after being sanctioned by the EU based on China's human rights violations.

Estonia's choice: Upholding values or realpolitik

Unlike Lithuania's values-based foreign policy, Estonia has taken a more cautious approach, ostensibly balancing its commitment to human rights and its economic interests. This tradition was set already in October 1991 when the newly independent Estonia's political leadership refused to meet the Dalai Lama on his first historic trip to Estonia.

But in fact, such a cautious approach does not bring any practical economic benefits to Estonia, as China accounted for just 1.7 percent of Estonia's exports in 2020.

Calling out the crimes against humanity is the duty of every free country. Estonia, as a young democracy having lived through crimes against humanity during Soviet occupation, must be one of the leading voices to hold the CCP accountable for committing genocide in Xinjiang.

Given the evidence and international reactions listed above, we invite MP Marko Mihkelson, the chairman of Riigikogu's Foreign Affairs Committee, to call for an internal review on Riigikogu's position on Xinjiang and propose a resolution to recognize the Xinjiang genocide. We hope that Estonia will eventually decide to stand with those countries that have recognized China's treatment of Uyghurs as a genocide and raise this issue to all international platforms and formats, including the Baltic Assembly, NB8 format, the European Council and United Nation's Human Rights Council, so that we can do justice to the Uyghurs and other suppressed people ruled by the CCP.

Iverson Ng is a Tallinn-based columnist from Hong Kong who writes for daily Postimees.

Oliver Loode is an expert on indigenous peoples' rights and former member of the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) (2014-2016)


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