How a small human rights charity made a big difference in prompting action on an unfolding genocide
As ‘the Jewish voice for human rights’, René Cassin works to use Jewish experience – as solidarity with other minorities and as authority in advocating in their support. Nowhere is the effectiveness of this approach better illustrated than in our recent work on the escalating Uyghur crisis in China. The response of the UK Jewish community has shown the power of the bond of two peoples united by the shared experience of genocide.
With one voice – René Cassin, the Jewish community, and a Uyghur singer from north London
The strength of that bond was emphasised in April, with a significant donation to the Stop Uyghur Genocide campaign made by the Pears Foundation on behalf of “the British Jewish community”. Stop Uyghur Genocide (SUG) was set up by Rahima Mahmut, a Uyghur exile who is also the UK representative of the World Uyghur Congress. Until this very generous donation, the campaign was run on an entirely voluntary basis, with Rahima juggling her campaigning with her day jobs as a translator and singer.
René Cassin was instrumental in sourcing and negotiating this game-changing gift and will continue to give logistical and moral support as SUG gets up and running in its newly-strengthened incarnation.
But how did René Cassin get involved with a Uyghur singer from north London? Read on …
How it all began – the UDHR and ‘a special responsibility not to remain silent’
As with so much of René Cassin’s work, our connection with the Uyghur genocide began with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As part of our output marking that year’s 70th anniversary of the UDHR, in December 2018 we published a blog, Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang, on our website. Its conclusion set the tone for our involvement in the issue:
As Jews we have a special responsibility not to remain silent in the face of arbitrary arrests and secret deportations. Any action, however small, will demonstrate that we have not forgotten our own past.
It may have been this blog that inspired the barrister Amy Woolfson to introduce Rahima to René Cassin. Having heard Rahima’s story, we organised a public meeting on 9 May 2019 to, as Amy explained in an opinion piece Jews must speak up for the Uyghurs in Chinafor Jewish News, “highlight the Uyghur crisis and to ask what solidarity and leadership the Jewish community can offer”.
After that meeting – Never Again? A Jewish response to the Uyghur crisis – at which Rahima addressed some 80 members of the Jewish community, René Cassin pledged to “bear witness to what is happening, raise awareness among the Jewish community, and advocate for an end to China’s persecution of its minorities”.
Within days, we launched some practical actions the Jewish community could take, and took part in a solidarity Iftar.
Sharing practical experience and expertise – vital help and advice on getting a campaign up and running
Behind the scenes, René Cassin’s Executive Director, Mia Hasenson-Gross, helped Rahima with the practicalities of setting up the London office of the World Uyghur Congress, devising a campaign strategy, and developing key relationships. Speaking to the Jewish News in April 2020, Rahima described Mia as “a ‘mentor’, teaching her ‘how to run a campaign’”.
Meanwhile, we continued to alert Parliamentarians (via a briefing In China, “never again” is happening again to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (October 2019)) and the Jewish community (China’s Xinjiang camps are eerily familiar, Jewish Renaissance magazine, and briefing paper Never Again? Jewish action in solidarity with the Uyghurs in China, both January 2020) to the horrors that were continuing to unfold in Xinjiang.
As Covid forced us all into lockdown, we continued to highlight the issue in our online output – in May, once again we organised a solidarity Iftar and ran a public meeting, Cultural Genocide of the Muslim Uyghurs.
Media, momentum, and the main players – how René Cassin helped create a unified Jewish voice
In July, we formed a key community media partnership. Our comments in a Jewish News story on the interception of 16 tonnes of Uyghur hair – “A trade in forcibly removed human hair has chilling and obvious resonances” – led a week later to Chilling Echoes – a co-hosted livestream event featuring broadcaster Maajid Nawaz.
From there momentum built steadily. Discussions with the Office of the Chief Rabbi led him to make a major intervention – “I can no longer remain silent about the plight of the Uighurs” – in December. And similar discussions with the Board of Deputies led to a similar outcome in January 2021, Board President, Marie van der Zyl declaring: “We are not willing to stand aside and do nothing as millions of people are herded into concentration camps”. A few days later Jewish News justified only the second special front page in its history: “ … few issues could be more urgent than the human rights atrocities currently taking place against Uyghur Muslims under the world’s nose”.
Timed to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day, that unity of Jewish resolve was noted in the mainstream press, including the Observer “Jewish leaders use Holocaust Day to decry persecution of Uighurs” (24 January) and Al-Jazeera English “Holocaust Memorial Day: Jewish figures condemn Uighur persecution” (27 January).
René Cassin marked Holocaust Memorial Day with an interfaith event entitled Together for Uyghurs – a Holocaust memorial event, and has since worked in a coalition of groups to secure a Genocide Amendment to the Trade Bill. Passover 2021 saw us in another, global, coalition of Jewish human rights groups and communities co-ordinating a series of campaign activities during a ‘Uyghur Week of Action’
Jewish action a catalyst for wider UK response
In two years the Uyghur Genocide has gone from being a hidden horror to a major political, diplomatic, and ethical issue – with the UK, US, and EU imposing sanctions on China, and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab calling it “one of the worst human rights crises of our time”.
The united, powerful response of the UK Jewish community has played an important role in bringing the Uyghur crisis the prominence it urgently requires. And René Cassin has, in turn, been instrumental in prompting and coordinating that response, and in helping to give Uyghur campaigners a voice.
“On behalf of the British Jewish community” – Rahima and Mia react to the Pears Foundation gift
Responding to the Pears donation to ‘Stop Uyghur Genocide’, Rahima Mahmut said:
“It is hard to put into words my gratitude for this gift, and the support for my fellow Uyghurs that it represents. In practical terms, it will mean that we will have the resources to make a real impact with our campaigns to label the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics ‘the Genocide Games’ and expose the extent to which western companies benefit from forced Uyghur labour. And in moral terms, to know we have the support and empathy of a community that has a real understanding of what we are suffering has a value beyond measure”.
And René Cassin’s Executive Director, Mia Hasenson-Gross added:
“This gift is both a testament to Rahima’s hard work and tenacity and a practical expression of the revulsion the Jewish community feels about ethnic and religious repression so brutal and so widespread that the UK and US have labelled it ‘genocide’.
When I first met Rahima two years ago I pledged that René Cassin would work to bear witness to what is happening to the Uyghurs and raise awareness among the Jewish community. This generous gift is enormously encouraging. But it is just the first step on the road that will only end when China ceases persecuting its minorities. We were with Rahima at the beginning of that journey, and we intend to be with her at its end.”