What can international human rights law accomplish in the absence of credible international courts? That is the question posed to the world by the Uyghur Tribunal, an “independent people’s court” in London that recently wrapped up its second and final round of hearings. In the face of what is likely today’s most heinous atrocity — and the demonstrated ineptitude of international courts to take on the case — the Uyghur Tribunal’s coming verdict will be a litmus test of the human rights legal establishment, now and in the China-ascendant future.
Following a request from the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization representing Uyghur interests abroad, the Uyghur Tribunal was launched in 2020 by Sir Geoffrey Nice, the lead prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal that tried Slobodan Milošević’s war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The Tribunal has been successful in assembling legal experts to formally collect and assess evidence of China’s crimes against its Muslim minorities, more than a million of whom have been interned in camps that reportedly include the use of torture, sexual abuse, coerced labor, forced sterilization and other horrors.
To be clear, both Beijing and the Tribunal have proposed answers, at least implicitly, to the question of whether international law matters without viable courts. The Uyghur Tribunal is betting that the transparent use of the law by respected experts on China’s alleged genocide will carry weight around the world. The Chinese government, on the other hand, has railed against the Tribunal as illegitimate and diplomatically destructive — a “machine producing lies.”
While the Uyghur Tribunal is not the first “court” of its kind, it likely will prove to be one of the most significant. Since 1967, people’s tribunals have acted as instruments of civil society to hold states accountable for alleged crimes that have gone untried. Conventionally, such tribunals have been largely partisan affairs, targeting powerful Western nations that were perceived to be using their outsized influence to enjoy immunity from international courts. In our increasingly multipolar world, however, powerful autocracies such as China and Russia have brought new relevance to people’s tribunals through their severe erosion of trust in the multilateral system — particularly on questions of human rights.
Unlike prior tribunals, the Uyghur Tribunal concerns an issue that already has garnered formal legal recognition as genocide by a range of government bodies, including the U.S. State Department and Congress, and maintains broad support in many Western democracies. As such, the Uyghur Tribunal is the first high-profile tribunal to receive significant international attention for its overt challenge to China’s routing of institutions on the global stage.
The Uyghur Tribunal’s attempt to uphold international law comes at a critical time in a world in which China, Russia, Cuba and Pakistan lead the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body that is targeting a whistleblower who exposed the Council handing over dissidents’ names to the Chinese regime. The Tribunal also follows the International Criminal Court’s (ICC’s) shameful refusal to investigate the Uyghurs’ plight last December. Despite the ICC being founded to address exactly the sort of crimes of which China stands accused, and clear precedent to establish jurisdiction, then-Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda tossed the case.
When released, the Tribunal’s findings could help make the argument for much-needed reform to these international institutions even clearer. If the impartial application of international law to existing evidence clearly demonstrates that Xinjiang is the world’s largest ongoing crime against humanity, it would be the most flagrant example yet of China turning international institutions on their head. It also would clearly indicate that international courts have gone from sluggish and flawed to dysfunctional and broken.
Beyond legal implications, the Tribunal also could help correct China’s false narrative about its own role in international organizations. Perhaps because it has been so successful in manipulating the multilateral system, China often draws upon its growing participation in the U.N. for international respectability. When Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBiden tries to tamp down tensions with Putin call Overnight Defense & National Security — Lawmakers clinch deal on defense bill Biden's 'Democracy Summit' meets the African paradox MORE cited Chinese actions that threaten “the rules-based order that maintains global stability” during March’s cantankerous Anchorage summit, Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi shot back that China follows “the United Nations-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called ‘rules-based’ international order.”
The Uyghur Tribunal helps to publicly pull the rug out from such pretensions by demonstrating to the world that China is not the misunderstood contributor to the international system that it claims to be, but an increasingly rogue regime that is hollowing out international law and institutions alike.
After its findings have been released, the Uyghur Tribunal’s impact ultimately will be determined by free societies around the world. Their responses, in terms of political will and economic decision-making, will bear out how consequential international law can be when its courts have been compromised by repressive powers.
That is a weighty responsibility. The legal foundation of the Tribunal’s work, the Genocide Convention of 1948, was born from the hard realities of history’s greatest tragedies. If free societies continue to let China commit atrocities without cost after a transparent public trial, the future of human rights is bleak. The world should take the Uyghur Tribunal’s lessons to heart — or risk the total submission of international institutions to autocratic powers.
Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where her research broadly focuses on the intersection of international law and security.
Bill Drexel is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, and studied Chinese state repression of religious minorities as a Schwarzman Scholar in Beijing from 2018-2019.