China’s Appalling Abuses in Xinjiang Show Why We Need a World Court of Human Rights

Gah-Kai Leung makes the case for a World Court of Human Rights.

Holocaust comparisons should not be drawn lightly. But when the sons and daughters of one of the world’s worst atrocities admonish Beijing with such parallels, you know something is rotten in the state of China.

Just this month, Newsweek’s Arsen Ostrovsky made this exact move, attacking the abuses suffered by Muslim Uyghurs at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. In the same week, Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, also accused the Politburo of committing crimes akin to those meted out in WWII. And in The Conversation, historian Aidan Forth pointed out that the Chinese government has employed the very same metaphors of disease as those the Nazis used, to justify wiping out whole ethnic minorities.

Events in Xinjiang need no introduction. If the US State Department is correct, over a million Uyghurs have been sent to “re-education” camps. Detainees have been shackled and bundled onto trains, never to be seen again. They have endured starvation, torture, electrocution, rape. The Uyghurs’ birth rate has collapsed. Many have been killed.

Few would not be repulsed by this. Yet the United Nations still turns a blind eye to these monstrosities, hamstrung by China’s permanent seat on the Security Council. It cannot publicly denounce one of its key players, lest it incur the wrath of the dragon. Equally, the tireless efforts of human rights advocates around the world, from NGOs to journalists, have amounted to virtually nothing in terms of concrete action. They have done an enormous public service by illuminating the scale of the catastrophe in Xinjiang. And yet the planet remains paralysed.

Most egregiously, this proves beyond doubt that our international legal system is not fit for purpose. The language of human rights summons up an ideal of world peace, of strangers united by common decency, of justice served against those who have exhibited the most disturbing tendencies in human nature. The reality is that this is merely the latest chapter in China’s litany of human rights violations. It makes a mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to think that one of the 21st century’s few remaining superpowers could act with such stunning impunity.

If we want our human rights law to be worth the paper it’s printed on, no one should escape punishment. We must have a court with universal jurisdiction, to ensure that no abuse goes untouched anywhere, whether in Argentina or Australia. True, Western governments can act unilaterally. They can freeze as many assets and issue as many sanctions as they like. But this is piecemeal at best; no match for enacting global rule of law. Moreover, we crave transparency: we feel justice must be seen to be done. We need -- indeed, we should want -- a World Court of Human Rights.

There are precedents, not least in the Nuremberg trials: the case that brought closure to the Holocaust, the case that set in motion our idea of human rights. There have been truth commissions, such as those in Rwanda or South Africa. But such tribunals have usually been temporary, set up with some specific purpose in mind. This World Court, on the other hand, would be permanent. It would set down what justice requires, as long as humanity is there to witness it. It would empower those routinely crushed by global injustices, such as pro-Uyghur activists and smaller countries whose voices are crowded out in the international arena.

Martin Luther King famously told us: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” A World Court of Human Rights would be the purest expression of that spirit. Beijing would at long last be held to account for its crimes in Xinjiang. Many other rogue governments would follow in its wake. We would all surely feel better for having rid ourselves of such monsters. A World Court of Human Rights would finally, truly, give us justice everywhere.

Gah-Kai Leung is a second-year PhD candidate in the Department of Politics & International Studies at the University of Warwick. His doctoral research focuses on the ethical and political issues in earthquake/tsunami risk reduction. More generally, Gah-Kai is interested in all aspects of social, political and legal philosophy. Aside from his doctoral work, he has written on consent in medical ethics and has an ongoing project on the morality of discrimination (especially in LGBT contexts).

He tweets at @GKLeung.

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