Don’t let Covid-19 allow us to overlook genocide

While the global radar is, rightly, on humanity overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic, we cannot stand by while human rights violations, and even genocidal actions, are perpetrated against certain peoples, the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation stated today Tuesday, 23 February 2020.

The people of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, China’s minority Uyghur ethnic group and the Rohingya of Myanmar all face genocide, as defined by the United Nations (UN) – violence and persecution committed with the intention to destroy a national, religious, ethnic or racial group.

“It is our duty to speak out, loudly and clearly, for those who have no voice, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed,” says Foundation CEO Piyushi Kotecha. “In the words of our founder, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ We cannot choose the side of the oppressor.”

Genocide is a process with 10 stages, according to non-profit organisation Genocide Watch, starting with the classification of a group of people as “them” – not “us” – and moving through escalating levels of discrimination and dehumanisation that lead to persecution and extermination.

The Ethiopian, Myanmar and Chinese governments have all denied that their actions against these people are genocidal. Denial is also one of genocide’s characteristics, however.

Earlier this month, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Alice Wairimu Nderitu warned that without urgent action the risk of atrocities characteristic of genocide is high. She listed the signs that have caused her concern as: extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, looting of property, mass executions and impeded humanitarian access, as well as reported acts of hate speech and stigmatisation, including ethnic profiling against some ethnic communities, notably, the Ethiopian Tigray, Amhara, Somali, and Oromo ethnic groups.

The foundation joins the European Union, the United States and several humanitarian organisations in calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Tigray. The African Union, while it did send three high-level envoys to the Tigray region in November, has not condemned Ethiopia’s actions in the region.

“We call for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the Tigray region of Ethiopia, unimpeded access for humanitarian organisations and an investigation into allegations of war crimes by an appropriate international agency such as the UN,” says Kotecha.

For decades, the Chinese government has systematically restricted the religious, cultural, and social practices of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang, the province in northwestern China where the government has detained as many as a million Uyghurs in so-called “re-education” camps in recent years.

China’s actions in Xinjiang were condemned by 39 UN Member States in October 2020, when the atrocities suffered by the Uyghurs were listed as: severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association and expression, as well as on Uyghur culture; widespread surveillance; forced labour; and forced birth control, including sterilisation. More recently, the Canadian parliament passed a motion declaring China’s actions against the Uyghur to be genocide.

The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority of a million people that have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine state for centuries, is especially heart-wrenching. The Rohingya are not a recognised ethnic minority in Myanmar, and the state uses this as a reason not to grant them citizenship rights.

As far back as 2019, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution strongly condemning rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups in Myanmar, including arbitrary arrests, torture, rape and deaths in detention. The United Kingdom and Canada have imposed sanctions on several Myanmar generals following the military coup in the country on 1 February 2021.

Violence against the Rohingya erupted in 2017, leading to the displacement of approximately 700 000 Rohingya within weeks. Since then, the Rohingya’s situation has only worsened, with most members of this small ethnic group now living in crowded refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

In all three of these instances – and these are just three of a long list of similar atrocities worldwide – governments have allowed themselves to cast their eyes away from this truth: we are all members of one human race, and we cannot stand by while this violence is perpetrated against the people of Tigray, the Uyghurs, the Rohingya or any other group.

There is, indeed, only one race: ours. We cannot be neutral in the face of these, and other, genocides. We stand with the people of Tigray, the Uyghurs, the Rohingya and any other group suffering intense violence or genocide.