World Uyghur Congress is 20 years old, the world needs to listen

Global awareness about the plight of Uyghur, an ethnic minority living in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China has increased over the years thanks to the efforts of several international organisations and NGOs.  One organisation at the forefront of this battle has been the World Uyghur Congress (WUC). Significantly, WUC will be celebrating its 20th anniversary from 3-6 May 2024 in Munich, the city where it was founded. Celebrations to mark the founding is a testament to two decades of unwavering commitment to the Uyghur cause. In China, the Uyghur are prevented from leading normal lives and cannot practice their faith (Islam) freely. Over a million Uyghur were put into re-education camps and international investigations revealed the scale of these camps and the manner in which scores of Uyghur suffered at the hands of the Chinese state.

The Uyghur are today increasingly recognized as a persecuted ethnic group in Xinjiang, and who face arbitrary detention, mass surveillance, separation of families, torture, forced labour and other human rights atrocities. However, it is not just those resident in China who face persecution, but even those Uyghur who reside outside China continue to face state-led repression. Uyghur living in third countries without firm settlement status are particularly vulnerable to detention and forced return, with many experiencing harassment and intimidation from local government authorities, often at the behest of Chinese authorities.

The WUC 20th anniversary celebrations intend to highlight this and many other issues. Recall that the WUC was established on 16 April 2004, in Munich, at a time, when the world had hardly heard of the Uyghur people! The WUC took upon itself the task of boldly representing the voices of the Uyghur people. Over time it became a symbol of hope and resilience in the face of immense challenges. Dolkun Isa, President WUC, has been at the forefront and runs one of the most prominent organizations in the world advocating for the rights of the Uyghur. In a recently released book, The China Freedom Trap: My Life on the Run, Isa recounts key events that have dotted his journey and time since he left China in 1994. Such reminiscences provide a graphic re-telling of the persecution faced by the Uyghur at the hands of the Chinese State.

Over the past two decades, the WUC has achieved remarkable success in bringing attention to the human rights abuses and genocide inflicted upon the Uyghur community. Notably, its advocacy efforts have led to two Nobel Peace Prize nominations in 2023 and 2024. The WUC will be hosting its anniversary celebrations in Munich, Germany, a poignant reminder of its founding amongst the Uyghur diaspora in Europe. It is reported that the 20th anniversary celebrations will feature a host of activities, including panel discussions, speeches, networking opportunities, and cultural events. Away from the serious discussions that are certain to be held, one can also expect stirring musical concerts to vibrant outdoor picnics. The gathering will also honour the struggles of the Uyghur people and reaffirm the WUC’s unwavering commitment to the pursuit of Uyghur freedom and human rights.

Over 300 participants are expected to participate in the WUC event, including Uyghur activists, community leaders, camp survivors, allies, government officials, and civil society representatives from over 25 countries. The conference will serve as a powerful platform for solidarity, dialogue, and collective action. The message that will come out from the two-day event is that the WUC will continue to raise voices, advocate for justice, and stand in solidarity with the Uyghur community.

The WUC has been active in a number of international organizations, including the United Nations and in the US Congress. It uses the forum of the Human Rights Council in Geneva to spread awareness about the Uyghur people. The WUC oral statements on the COVID-19 pandemic, putting especially detainees in the re-education camps at risk and on the arbitrary detention of 1.8-3 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others at the 43th session of the UNHRC provide useful insights into the manner in which the Uyghur have been persecuted.

The WUC also performs lobbying activities in relation to the EU and European Parliament. In particular, the WUC meets with EU, MEPs to update them on the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang and push for European action to alleviate their situation. The WUC is focused on EU foreign policy, particularly its relations with China. It advocates for human rights to be fully integrated in the EU’s relations with China and for the Uyghur issue to be raised. But it is not the West where the WUC performs lobbying and advocacy. It operates wherever Uyghur are resident, both as legal migrants and refugees.

For instance, the WUC recently appreciated the voice raised by the United Nations for the release of 43 Uyghur refugees held in Thailand, a WUC statement stated. Since March 2014, 43 Uyghur men have been held at the IDC Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok, Thailand under inhumane and overcrowded conditions. The men were part of a larger group of 350 Uyghur refugees who fled China in 2014, attempting to reach Turkey through Thailand to escape persecution.

That the Chinese have tried for long to “Sinicize” the Uyghur, like other ethnic minorities in China is well known and documented. Further, their views on the WUC show the Communist Party’s standard hatred for all those who question their right to rule. A 2021 press release from the Chinese Consulate in Brisbane, Australia states, “The WUC is a far-right, anti-communist, ultra-nationalist organization made up of Uyghur separatists in exile; its mission is to subvert China and establish an “East Turkistan” nation-state.”  Strong words indeed and coupled with the insinuation that WUC is ‘funded and directed’ by the US against China makes it amply clear as to how China views the WUC and its activities.

With such a world view, it is only natural that as more and more facts emerge regarding the treatment of the Uyghur by the Chinese state emerge, the world responds with harsher critique of Beijing’s policies. It is only recently that some countries in the West have begun to term China’s actions against the Uyghur as “genocide”. It has taken a long time for organizations like the WUC to make the world aware of the contours of this genocide. The perspectives that NGOs like WUC bring to attention are based on scores of interviews with refugees, provide assistance to Uyghur asylum seekers who escape from China and lobby with the US Congress as well as the EU Parliament to sanction Beijing for its actions against the Uyghur. It is this effort that has resulted in a much greater awareness of the problem. As the WUC begins its 20th anniversary celebrations, the world must doff its cap to the WUC for its successful efforts to highlight the plight of the Uyghur in China and beyond.






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