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Failure is Not an Option: The International Community Must Respond to Atrocities Against the Uyghurs


David (Lord) Alton chairing an evidence taking session at the House of Lords on the plight of Uyghurs and the framing of more effective responses to the crime of genocide.

By Lord David Alton

The Simon-Skjodt Center is committed to bringing attention to the ongoing and escalating mistreatment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), China. On November 16, 2020, Erin Rosenberg, Senior Advisor with the Simon-Skjodt Center’s Ferencz International Justice Initiative, participated in “The Persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China—Where to Go From Now?” hosted by Lord David Alton, a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uighurs. The opinions below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I first raised the plight of the Uyghurs as long ago as January 2008 in the UK Parliament and, since then, have done so on 34 occasions—through speeches and questions in Parliament. 

In 2009, one year after I first asked the UK Government to consider what was happening to the Uyghurs, I travelled to Western China and Tibet. During my visit, I went to the Great Mosque of Xining, the Dongguan Masjid Mosque, dating from the 14th century.  It is one of the four largest mosques in Northwest China and is the largest and most important mosque in Qinghai Province. Enlarged in 1946, it serves as a reminder of the religious pluralism, which existed within China before the coming of Chinese Communism. 

Over recent months, we have seen report after report shedding light on new evidence of the atrocities perpetrated against the Uyghurs, including evidence of mass forced incarceration in the so-called “re-education” camps, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, forced sterilisation, forced abortions, forced labour, and much more. 

Each piece of evidence adds to the argument that the atrocities amount to international crimes, and highly likely, genocide, although the technical determination of the atrocities has yet to be made. 

There has been little formal international investigation of the allegations and a comprehensive response to these atrocities is greatly needed. 

What is urgently needed? 

As a matter of urgency, all of the allegations should be investigated by an independent body. Victims need to be assisted and their rights affirmed; perpetrators must be brought to account. 

It sounds straightforward, but in the case of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it is far from simple.

Who could investigate the alleged atrocities?

Investigations could be undertaken through a UN established mechanism. Such investigative mechanisms for mass atrocities have been established elsewhere—for example, in Syria, Myanmar, North Korea, and Iraq. These investigative bodies have been established by the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, and the UN Security Council, each of which has a different mandate for its work. Although some of these inquiries have not resulted in decisive steps to address the atrocities, they have at least enabled an independent body to collect evidence and establish facts.

In the case of the CCP and the Uyghurs—and outright denial by the CCP of extremely serious international crimes—such an independent inquiry is long overdue. Given the CCP’s subversion of many UN bodies, it is unlikely that we will see an inquiry emerge from the UN system.

However, a new initiative led by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, may fill that void. In September 2020, Sir Geoffrey launched the Uyghur Tribunal, a new independent inquiry set up to assess the evidence of the alleged atrocities perpetrated against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in China. 

The launch of the Uyghur Tribunal follows a request from the World Uyghur Congress for an independent review of the allegations of international crimes being perpetrated against the minority communities.

Who could prosecute those most responsible for the atrocities? 

Currently the options to prosecute those most responsible for the atrocities are very limited. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC), the only permanent international criminal tribunal in existence, does not have jurisdiction over the crimes in China, as China is not a party to the Rome Statute. 

However, in July 2020, lawyers representing the Uyghur community made a submission to the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) at the ICC asking for an investigation to be opened against senior Chinese leaders whom they accuse of genocide and crimes against humanity. While China is not a state party to the ICC, the lawyers argue that the crimes partly took place in Tajikistan and Cambodia, which are state parties to the ICC. This is the approach the ICC has  taken in the case of Myanmar/Bangladesh, where Myanmar is not a state party, but Bangladesh is. While the ICC Prosecutor concluded on December 14, 2020, that it could not proceed at this stage, lawyers representing the Uyghur community have sent further evidence for the Prosecutor’s consideration. 

Another option would be for the UN Security Council to establish an ad hoc tribunal to examine the atrocities. This is very unlikely to happen as any such proposal would require the agreement of the country which stands accused: China. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China can exercise its veto and block an investigation.

There has been some debate about whether such vetoes should be disapplied in certain limited circumstances (such as in the case of genocide), but this remains for now an academic debate. This does not, however, prevent domestic courts, through the application of universal jurisdiction, from examining evidence of atrocities such as genocide, identifying those culpable and initiating prosecutions.  

How can we assist the victims? 

The list is long. 

Incarcerated Uyghurs need to be released from the re-education/concentration camps and from forced slave labour. They need to be provided with medical assistance; they need safe places to live. Their customs, their history, their culture, their religion and their identity need to be valued and respected. Their dignity restored. Their human rights affirmed.

In the current climate—with too much indifference, and too much silence, from too many Governments—the CCP seems determined to repeat the horrific excesses of the past. But those who have eyes should not avert them, those who have ears should use them to hear the cries for help, and those who have voices have a duty to raise them.    

For eighteen years, David (Lord) Alton served in the House of Commons for a Liverpool Constituency. He was Chief Whip of the Liberal Party. In 1997, on standing down, he became an Independent Crossbench Peer. A university professor and author of several books he is a founder of Jubilee Campaign and chairs, or is an officer, of a number of  All-Party Parliamentary groups, including the APPG on Uighurs. After visiting genocide sites and meeting victims he has raised the issue of genocide in Parliament, through questions or speeches on 300 occasions. He has also promoted a Private Members Bill on Genocide Determination and successfully piloted an amendment through the House of Lords which would prevent trade with countries judged by the High Court of England and Wales to be involved in genocide. The amendment’s enactment is now dependent on the House of Commons. Full biographical details at


On March 5, 2020, the Center hosted a public event highlighting the plight of the Uyghurs. The Center warned that there are reasonable grounds to believe that China is committing crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs, specifically (1) imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty and (2) persecution. This determination was later cited during the Congressional debate on the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020. To learn more about this event, read the remarks of Simon-Skjodt Center Director Naomi Kikoler and Holocaust survivor Al Munzer on China’s systemic persecution of the Uyghurs.

To learn more about the situation facing the Uyghurs and the Center’s work, visit the Simon-Skjodt Center’s country page.