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Notre Dame law school hosts Uyghur-American lawyer and commissioner to speak on Uyghur genocide

“People often say history repeats itself, but we allow history to repeat,” Commissioner Nury Turkel said in his conversation with Stephanie Barclay, a professor at the Notre Dame Law School, this Monday. In the talk, Turkel detailed the ongoing genocide against the Uyghur people in China.

Turkel, who was born in a Chinese “re-education” camp, is the first U.S. educated Uyghur-American lawyer. He was appointed commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in May 2020 by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. He also recently published a book — “No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs.”

Turkel began his remarks by describing the situation of the Uyghur people, who are a Muslim ethnic group native to the Xinjiang region in China.

“The Chinese government has locked up anywhere between 2 to 3 million Uyghurs in industrial secure concentration camps that the world has not seen since the Holocaust era,” Turkel stated.

China’s motivation for the imprisonment of the Uyghurs, beyond wanting a cheap labor force, Turkel said, is a desire to suppress religion in China as a whole.

“Abrahamic religion and communist ideology are not compatible,” he said. “The Chinese government wants the state to be the highest force in people’s lives and thus religion is seen as a sign of disloyalty.”

Turkel continued to detail the many ways in which the Chinese government is suppressing the religious expression of the Uyghurs.

“In April 2017, the legislative body […] essentially criminalized 48 behaviors: growing a beard, wearing a religious outfit, praying, keeping a prayer mat or religious text, adhering to holidays, refusing to smoke or drink,” Turkel said.

Turkel described the situation as an “everyday Kristallnacht,” referring to a specific instance of Nazi terror targeting the Jewish population in Germany with vandalism, destruction and broken glass.

As of 2022, Turkel stated that 800,000 Uyghur children have been imprisoned and separated from their families. Women have been subject to forced sterlization, rape and forced abortion.

Turkel stated that the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to eliminate the Uyghur ethnic group by forcing women to marry Han Chinese men — women who refuse are imprisoned. As a result of these policies, the growth rate of the Uyghur population has fallen by 65%.

Turkel added that the prisons have gotten worse over time. While a few decades ago, they would have been more similar to the gulags found in Soviet Russia, today they are more akin to Nazi concentration camps.

Turkel himself has been affected by the actions of the Chinese Communist Party. In the 1970s, Turkel’s father was sent to a forced labor camp, and his mother was sent to a re-education camp. There, she was beaten, almost starved to death and gave birth to Turkel in the prison while suffering from a broken hip.

Today, Turkel is being sanctioned by China for speaking out against the genocide. His mother cannot leave the country to meet her five grandchildren in the U.S., and he is unable to visit her in China.

“I could not attend my father’s funeral or hold my mother while we were mourning,” Turkel stated, “I do not think that I will see her again in this life.”

In order to control the Uyghur population, Turkel said the Chinese government has developed a massive security apparatus. Security cameras are incredibly prevalent and track the activities of all citizens. More invasive, however, are the roughly 1 million Chinese government spies who have been sent into Uyghur populations, Turkel explained. 

“Chinese spies are sent to Uyghur homes — specifically those who have no male household leader — and are sleeping and eating with those female mothers and individuals in their homes,” Turkel said. He added that these spies ask children to report on their mothers.

Turkel praised the work that Congress has done in passing bills that limit American business in Xinjiang, as well as the over 100 punitive sanctions imposed on China by both the Trump and Biden administrations. Turkel also applauded the U.S. government for officially classifying what is happening as genocide.

“Words matter and are incredibly consequential in a situation like the Uyghur crisis,” he said. 

At the same time, however, Turkel declared more work needs to be done by the government to combat these atrocities.

“U.S. foreign policy establishment can no longer ignore the human rights abuses being committed against the Uyghurs, Tibetans and now the people of Hong Kong,” Turkel said.

America should also urge its allies to take a stronger stance, Turkel argued, but responsibility is not solely on the government to act.

“If we continue to look the other way, then other nations will be emboldened, encouraged that they can get away with this kind of crime in broad daylight,” he said.

Turkel explained that many American companies do business in Xinjiang, and 80% of cotton exported from China is farmed in Xinjiang by Uyghur forced laborers — much of which is sold in the U.S. Turkel implored Americans to stop buying cotton apparel made in China and said he hopes mainstream U.S. culture takes a stance against China for their crimes in the same way it has against Russia.

“For the first time since the heyday of antebellum South, cotton slavery is once again polluting the global economy on a huge industrial scale,” Turkel declared.

Concluding his remarks, Turkel read a passage from his book.

“As 18th century English statesman Edmund Burke once observed, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” he said. “That is why I will always speak up, even if it is through my own tears.”

Contact Liam at lkelly8@nd.edu

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