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Interfaith conference seeks to raise awareness about Uyghur genocide

The hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs subjected by China to detention, forced labor and cultural erasure underscores the urgency for global action, panelists said at a two-day interfaith conference on disrupting Uyghur genocide organized by The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity that wrapped up Thursday.

Survivors, experts, religious leaders and activists participated in panels to discuss the situation of the Uyghurs and called on governments to promote pro-Uyghur policies and to pressure businesses that profit from Uyghur forced labor, said a notice about the conference on the foundation’s website.

An estimated 1.8 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups have passed through “re-education” camps in Xinjiang, in China’s far northwest, as part of a larger effort by Beijing to wipe out the Uyghurs along with their culture, language and religion. Some of the detainees have been subjected to torture, rape and psychological abuse.

These actions and policies, the United States and other Western governments say, amount to genocide and crimes and against humanity against the 11 million Uyghur people.

China denies the human rights abuses and says the camps were vocational training centers and have since been closed. Restrictions placed on Uyghurs are to counter religious extremism and terrorism, according to Beijing.

Western diplomats have raised the Uyghur genocide issue “directly and forcefully” with Chinese officials, Ellen Germain, special envoy for Holocaust issues at the U.S. State Department and a panel speaker, told Radio Free Asia.

Additionally, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act of 2021 and the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018, require the U.S. government, State Department and Department of Homeland Security, among others, to take action that will impose consequences on those who commit genocide or other atrocities, she said. 

“We recognize that it’s never enough for those who are suffering,” Germain said.

‘We are not afraid’

The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, named for the Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, writer and human rights activist who died in 2016, has thrown its support behind raising awareness of the Uyghur genocide through protests, op-eds, funding and events such as conferences.

Elie Wiesel poses with his wife Marion and son Elisha in New York, Oct. 14, 1986. (Richard Drew/AP)
Elie Wiesel poses with his wife Marion and son Elisha in New York, Oct. 14, 1986. (Richard Drew/AP)

In 2023, the foundation awarded grants amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars to three Uyghur groups dedicated to Uyghur rights advocacy and education amid ongoing repression against the ethnic group by Chinese authorities.

“We’re not afraid of the Chinese Communist Party because they are in the wrong, and what they are doing is intolerable,” said his son, Elisha Wiesel, the foundation’s chairman. 

“And if we can help to get the world to see that, to get the American public in particular to see that, that’s part of our role, and we need to do it in serving my father’s memory,” he said. 

Forced sterilizations of detained Uyghur women, the destruction of thousands of mosques throughout Xinjiang, and the assignment of Han Chinese civil servants to stay in the homes of Uyghur families are other ways the Chinese government has sought to wipe out the Uyghurs and their culture. 

“That is a genocidal activity to suppress the birth rate of a people, to change their buildings and remove their character, to forcibly remove their traditions by inserting people into the family life to prevent certain traditions from being followed,” Wiesel said. 

Two major challenges

The foundation faces two major challenges in trying to raise awareness about the Uyghur genocide, Wiesel said.

The first is the Chinese government’s “information blackout policy,” making it nearly impossible for Uyghur families living in Xinjiang to communicate with relatives overseas or for the press to get first-hand information on what’s happening there. 

“If the Western free press doesn’t have access to the atrocity, it can’t report it,” Wiesel said. “And then, it’s almost as though it doesn’t happen.”

The second is that it is difficult to get celebrities to draw attention to the genocide because China is a major market for U.S. and Western movies and goods, such as sneakers. 

“So, all of a sudden [China] has dollars and cents to impact celebrities, which makes it much harder now that their bottom line is at stake,” Wiesel said. “It’s much harder to activate them.”

Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.