The last time Irade Kashgary heard from her grandmother was in 2015. That was the year her grandmother told the family that she’d been placed under house arrest in Xinjiang, an autonomous Uyghur region controlled by China, with no real explanation why. Since then, Kashgary hasn’t been able to get in contact with her aunts, uncles, and cousins in the region either.
The Kashgarys are Uyghur Muslims indigenous to Xinjiang, though Kashgary and her immediate family live in the U.S. Since 2014, China has been forcing portions of its Uyghur Muslim population into internment camps, in addition to subjecting those outside to mass surveillance and heavy policing. Like Kashgary’s grandmother, many people, including families with children, have been placed on house arrest.
The UN and various international human rights organizations have condemned the country’s treatment of Uyghur people, but China has not indicated it has any plans to stop persecuting the population. In response, Kashgary and other members of a group called No Rights. No Games. are calling on China to close the camps ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“The Olympics brings people together, and it brings people together in a supposedly non politicized way,” said Peter Irwin, the primary coordinator of the campaign. “If you have a games that is hosted in a country with concentration camps—and I'll use that language—that completely does not square with the very clear spirit of the games and the Olympic movement.”
Both Kashgary and Irwin are clear that No Rights. No Games. is not advocating for a boycott of the Olympics—at least not yet. The group has two demands: The first is that China shut down the camps. The second asks China to respect Uyghur rights outside of the camps too. If these two demands are met, the group would like to see the winter games continue as planned in Beijing. But if China refuses, No Rights. No Games. plans to call on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to relocate the Olympics to a country that is not engaging in the mass detention of religious and ethnic minorities.
“We we want the Olympics to go forward; we want the Olympics to be successful,” Irwin said. “But the main point is that they will not be successful if they're held in a country where there are concentration camps and they're treating a population this way.”
“We just want to know that the IOC is going to hold China accountable,” added Kashgary.
Despite overwhelming evidence of mass detention and continued human rights abuses towards the Uyghur population, the Chinese government initially denied the existence of the internment camps outright, only later acknowledging them as “vocational education and training centers.” The government has insisted that the Uyghur Muslims in the region “enjoy equal freedoms and rights.”
The most recent version of the IOC’s charter emphasizes its strong concern for human rights. “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” the IOC states in one of its seven fundamental principles of Olympism. The IOC also requires host cities to sign a contract agreeing to meet “internationally-recognised human rights standards and principles.” (Arbitrary detention without trial is illegal under international law.)
"We just want to know that the IOC is going to hold China accountable"
“We are responsible for ensuring the respect of the Olympic Charter with regard to the Olympic Games and take this responsibility very seriously,” the IOC said in a statement to VICE. “At the same time, the IOC has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country.”
At a press conference in early December, IOC President Thomas Bach was asked whether the organization would still hold the games considering China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims. “There is an ongoing dialogue there with the organizing committee and we take this responsibility very serious,” Bach said. “But we also have to respect our limits and our limitations. Our mandate and our responsibility is with regard to the Olympic games.”
In the meantime, the situation in Xinjiang is getting worse for Uyghur Muslims. An estimated one million Muslims are currently being held in detention, according to The New York Times. For those who aren’t, conditions are dismal as well. They have seen the closure of their mosques and the disappearance of community members. Many have been forced into surveilled house arrest or compulsory labor.
In early December, following the passage of a U.S. bill calling on China to end “arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment of these communities inside and outside China,” the Chinese government reiterated that the camps were educational centers and denied any wrongdoing. On Monday, Xinjiang governor Shohrat Zakir claimed that all Uyghurs currently in detention were there voluntarily. Experts and human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch have heavily disputed his words.
“I'm proof of the fact that things are not normal there,” said Kashgary. “If things were normal in XinJiang, then I would be able to call my grandma. I would be able to call my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and be able to openly speak with them at this age of technology
“And,” she added, “I would be able to go back and visit them without having to worry for myself.”