On genocide, bitcoin, loneliness, model aircraft, daredevils, music – Letters to the editor

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The legal meaning of genocide

You claim that “genocide” is the wrong word to describe the horrors of China’s actions against the Uyghur population (“How to talk about Xinjiang”, February 13th). Genocide is not a word that should be used lightly. You recognise that, as defined by the UN convention (and indeed by international law and American law), genocide does not necessarily entail the immediate mass slaughter of a group. Destruction of the group (in whole or in part) must be the intended result, but this may be achieved in a number of ways.

In the case of the Uyghurs, in terms of the legal test, allegations include killings, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to destroy the group by way of concentration camps, forced labour and other atrocities, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring Uyghur children to another group. These acts are supported by evidence of the specific intent to destroy this ethno-religious group, a specific intent that can be inferred from the pattern and systemic nature of the atrocities.

Each element of genocide has to be scrutinised in consideration of the available evidence. In the absence of an international court or tribunal, countries, as the duty holders under the Genocide Convention, must determine their responses. Indeed, the convention imposes certain duties upon states to prevent and punish. The American administration didn’t wake up one day and decide to call the atrocities against the Uyghurs genocide. The State Department had been working on the topic for months.

The duty to prevent genocide is extensive and critical. As the International Court of Justice in the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina v Serbia and Montenegro clarified, the duty to prevent arises “at the instant that the state learns of, or should normally have learned of, the existence of a serious risk that genocide will be committed”. If this is the case, countries must conduct their monitoring, analysis and determination of at least the serious risk of genocide very early on. In order to punish genocide, states must introduce domestic laws to give effect to the UN convention, including criminalising genocide and conspiracy to commit genocide. This is where meeting the precise elements of the crime are crucial as otherwise the charges would not stand.

Your assertion that genocide in Xinjiang is an “exaggeration” or “rhetorical escalation” means that countries may well evade acting upon their duties. That has too often been the case as the world watches genocides take place.


Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute




Coalition for Genocide Response


Associate professor of law and political science

University of Houston Law Centre


Executive director

Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights

Studies at Concordia University


Professor of international conflict resolution at the Faculty of Law and Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa



Lawyers for Uyghur Rights, Committee World Uyghur Congress

London office



Co-founder and Board Chair of the Uyghur Human Rights Project


Reader in Chinese studies, East Asian studies

School of Modern Languages Newcastle University

* Your assertion that the UN treaty definition of genocide is unusually broad misleadingly suggests that genocide is easy to establish. It is harder than you think. The requirement of genocidal intent means that a state’s conduct constitutes genocide only if the aim it “to destroy, in whole or in part” a protected group. This is notoriously difficult to establish. Cases against the former Yugoslavia at the International Court of Justice failed to prove genocidal intent at the state level, even in the face of mass killings.

If The Economist takes the view that China’s conduct in Xinjiang does not meet the legal definition of genocide, it should make that case. But it is harmful to argue that alleging genocide based on the legal definition is untruthful or baseless because the everyday usage of the term is different. You also unfortunately perpetuate the stubborn idea that “crimes against humanity”, a broader category of mass atrocity crimes that can be easier to establish, are less heinous than genocide, rather than acts that are similarly beyond the pale and deserving of widespread condemnation.


Adjunct assistant professor of law

Trinity College


* The tireless efforts of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, led to the coining of the term “genocide” and its enshrinement in international conventions. In 1944 Lemkin wrote that “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation…it is intended rather to signify a co-ordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity.”

His previous attempts to ensnare such crimes against humanity as “barbarity” or “vandalism” were dismissed by the European legal establishment before the second world war. The semantics of the term genocide are so vital. There is power in putting the label to the crime because its context reminds the international community of its obligations and responsibilities.

Wilful ignoring actions that qualified as genocide in favour of realpolitik was shown throughout the 20th century to only appease, aid and abet. Ceding the moral authority on the matter of genocide and opting to shy away from its veridical application sets a dangerous precedent for political engagement with a muscular China and indeed the rest of the world.



*It is already very hard for outsiders to influence China’s decision making. When charges against it are fabricated or exaggerated, it becomes even harder. By accusing China of genocide, we convince China that our criticisms are in bad faith. Even applying the grossly enlarged definition of genocide used by the UN Genocide Convention (which includes forced birth control) it is easy for China to point to Uyghur population growth as evidence that there is no intention to annihilate the Uyghurs. There is plenty of evidence of crimes against humanity. Why weaken this charge by applying a trumped-up one?


Maidenhead, Berkshire

A slow-motion genocide is still a genocide. The drafters of the UN convention added the clauses you mention, of preventing births and so on, in anticipation of subtler means of destroying a group without systematic killing. The Uyghurs’ case, and cases in the future, will undoubtedly adhere to this more subtle form of eradicating a people.

The world faces existential challenges, like climate change, that will require action from China, but the last thing we should do is downplay its abuses. Call it whatever you want—human-rights abuse, atrocities, crimes against humanity, or genocide—if history has taught us one thing, it is that the world is slow to react to horrors like this one in part because we allow the debate about labels to eclipse the debate about what must be done to stop it.


Executive director

Uyghur Human Rights Project

Washington, DC

Out of fashion

It may be more helpful to view Tesla’s recent “investment” in bitcoin in the context of a brand (Schumpeter, February 13th). It has all the hallmarks of the merger of fashion brands and cultural icons, often indicated by an “x”, such as Beyoncé x Balmain or McQueen x Hirst. Vogue described these collaborations as designed “to trick us into thinking that a sneaker or a hoodie is more desirable by the mere fact that it has an ‘x’ on its label”. No one doubts the punk credentials of both parties in “Tesla x bitcoin”, but I am not sure Tesla’s mission will sit well for long with the environmental harm from mining cryptocurrencies.


Managing director

Monmouth Capital


The covid world foretold

Reading Bartleby’s column on loneliness (January 30th) reminded me of E.M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops”, written in 1909. In this future dystopia people spend their lives in isolated underground cells. Everything is provided at the press of a button and not touching others is a sign of good breeding. People communicate through a system similar to our internet and have short interactions with others in a way not different from how people use today’s social media. It is a fabulous extrapolation of our current world of the cubicle, the digital economy and no-touch social norms.



Test flights

You implied that model aircraft are not real (“A worrying windfall”, January 30th). Beginning with the famous experiments of Sir George Cayley (the father of aviation) using unmanned gliders in the early 19th century through to the present day, aerodynamicists have routinely turned to models to give them insights into what does or does not work and why. Models are just as “real” as full-size fighter jets or airliners. A model glider was recently recorded flying at 548mph (Mach 0.7).


Manager, Team GBR

FAI World Slope Racing Championships 2021


No mere mortals

I enjoyed your article on thrill-seekers and the contradiction between their death-defying stunts and their calm demeanour (“Last of the daredevils”, January 30th). But why turn to an evolutionary psychologist for an explanation. The profession is more obsessed with sex than Freud; even the most banal human behaviour is to them a remnant of some ancient mating ritual.

Better to quote Ernest Becker, who argued in “The Denial of Death” that people indulge in dangerous activities to maintain the deeply held delusion that they are immortal and do not have to worry about the great hereafter. In this sense, base jumping is no different from attending mass, or staking out a grand legacy, or indeed, writing letters to the editor.


Linkoping, Sweden

Compose yourselves

If we are to hurl music into space may I suggest we send our best rather than the mishmash described in “We are the world” (January 30th). Let’s just broadcast Bach, perhaps starting with the “Well-Tempered Clavier” and the Goldberg variations. This will avoid any embarrassment many years hence when or if we get a reply.


Rockaway Beach, Oregon

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