60 Years of Occupation – Guess Where
In 1949, a land that had for hundreds of years been home to Muslim peoples was forcibly seized by outsiders. They implemented a policy of ethnic dislocation and colonization. While some of the Muslims, chafing under the occupation, turned to terrorism, the recalcitrant state refused to budge even until today.
And the occupied country is — the Second East Turkestan Republic, home of the Uighurs.
The extensive media coverage of and diplomatic reaction to the recent and perhaps ongoing ethnic violence between Han and Uighurs in Xinjiang seems to have missed an important detail.
The Uighurs are not simply a minority group in China that may not be getting the fairest deal. Rather, they are arguably an occupied people – and the massive Han Chinese population in the area almost entirely settlers.
China conquered the independent Second East Turkestan Republic in 1949, in an open land grab. This was news to me — the illegal conquest of Tibet the subsequent year is well known, but apparently without a Dalai Lama, the Uighurs’ national aspirations are paid even less lip service than Tibetans’.
How could there be such silence about an ongoing illegal occupation? I briefly looked at the media coverage and reports of international human rights organizations (Amensty, HRW), and I can find none that discussed the situation as an occupation or the Han as illegally “transferred” people under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Nor does this appear to be the position of any nation, though again I don’t claim to have done meticulous inquiry and would be happy to be corrected.
What can explain this silence? There are some possible technical reasons. China ran tanks into the young country just days before signing the Geneva conventions, though it seems it did not conquer the whole thing until after signing. Nonetheless it only acceded to Geneva in 1956, by which time the last Uighur holdouts had been overtaken. Moreover, I believe it was the Nationalist Chinese who signed the treaties. So the easiest explanation for why this is not treated as a violation of international law of occupation is that China had not yet accepted the Geneva conventions requirements. Is that what is said about Tibet?
Nonetheless, this would not change the fact that the conquest itself violated international law. It would be hard to square this avoidance of the Fourth Geneva convention with how it is interpreted in other contexts. After all, when China did the seed to the Geneva conventions it was already an occupier. One would have to say that the conventions do not apply to preexisting occupations. This seems consistent with Art. 2 — and of course, East Turkestan was not a contracting power. Yet it would be inconsistent with the view that given the humanitarian purposes of the provisions regarding occupation, their applicability should be interpreted broadly to avoid gaps in coverage. It would seem the conventions would apply during the period when China imported a vast number of Han into the area, demographically overwhelming the Uighurs. Moreover, Tibet is treated as occupied territory by the U.S. and perhaps some other countries, and it is very hard to distinguish the cases.
Is there some reason this issue is not on the international law radar? Or have I missed something? Naturally I don’t expect anyone to rush to liberate East Turkestan – I’m a realist. But what about “soft power”? And the role of NGOs? If this is an occupation, it is probably one of the worst ongoing ones — something like 10 million people occupied, which I think is more than West Bank, Western Sahara, Northern Cyrus, Tibet, Abkazia/Ossetia, etc. combined.