Resettling Uyghurs no easy task
By Ian Williams
The plight of the Uyghurs has had more publicity than ever before because of the United States Congress's reticence and Beijing's bluster. The 22 prisoners have served their people well, if unwillingly and unwittingly, although resettling these victims of Guantanamo has not brought out the best in people or countries elsewhere.
Almost forgotten in the recent acceptance of some of them by Bermuda
and Palau is Albania stepping up to the plate to take five of them four years ago. Albania, the only Muslim-majority United Nations member in Europe, was doubtless sentimentally inclined to accept their co-religionists from the other end of the Turkic sphere of influence, but one rather suspects that the George W Bush administration offered cash and or big diplomatic favors in
return. Under Enver Hoxha, Albania had cocked a snook at China when it was its only friend in the world. It could well afford to risk the displeasure that Beijing is displaying so prominently.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the UN Security Council was setting up its anti-terrorism committee, China's ambassador kept trying to add "and secessionist activities", to its remit. The other members were politely overlooking him until he persisted and demanded to know why he was being ignored and the British ambassador, looking over his shoulder at Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties back home, told him firmly, "Because secessionist activities are not against international law, or the domestic law of many members."
Certainly nothing could have provoked Uyghur secessionist sentiment more than Beijing's chauvinistic policies there, insouciantly swamping the allegedly autonomous region with Hans and marginalizing the Turkic Uyghurs. Even their close brethren in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are not going to risk relations with China over their treatment, although many ordinary citizens are unhappy about it.
China has been demanding their repatriation, not least since they cannot tell the difference between secessionism and terrorism. Perhaps the only way the US comes out of this with a modicum of respectability is that, after kidnapping and incarcerating these Uyghur refugees, it has refused to hand them over to Beijing. Otherwise, it is shameful on grounds of equity and humanity that the US has not offered asylum to its victims, who have been cleared of any crime. In its traditional invertebrate mode, Congress, having done nothing to stop their illegal incarceration, now refuses to allow President Barack Obama to resettle them in the US.
That marginally excuses all the other nations who have refused to accept them. After all, how do you explain to your own voters that these people are harmless victims if the last country to victimize them won't allow them in?
Ironically, both countries that had the courage of their humanitarian convictions and a weather eye to as yet unspecified profit, Palau and Bermuda, are studies in how far autonomy will go.
Bermuda is still technically a British territory and London is responsible for its security and foreign policy. The island government, for unspecified returns but almost certainly more substantial than mere gratitude, is treating this as an immigration issue, although London wants to talk. It is likely that British umbrage is more with Washington's insouciance to its titular sovereignty over Bermuda than with the island government.
However, if New Labour wanted to abase itself to China by making a constitutional issue of it, it would meet outrage at home. While there may not be much enthusiasm for taking in Washington's dirty laundry, the civil rights issues would emerge noisily. In Bermuda, heavy-handed interference from London could strengthen the independence movement and possibly provoke prompt recognition of Taiwan.
Palau battled Washington for decades about the American insistence that it remove its nuclear-free clauses from its constitution before the US would accept the Compact of Free Association that eventually allowed its membership of the United Nations. By that compact, the US is totally in charge of the archipelago's defense, and effectively pays its budget. Indeed, in the Trusteeship Council at the time, yet another British diplomat mused on the record about whether Palau and its sister former UN Strategic Trust territories met traditional definitions of sovereignty. Ever-obliging Palau was one of the first of the "willing" to join the coalition of the same, although no outrigger canoes were seen paddling up the Gulf as a result. It also helps that Palau recognizes Taiwan, so Beijing's pressure would be even more ineffectual.
Indeed, one wonders why Taiwan did not step up to the plate, but then the Kuomintang has only recently accepted Mongolian sovereignty, let alone Xinjiang's. It would have been interesting if the Democratic Progressive Party, itself a secessionist organization, were still in power.
Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.
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