Building Trust in Democratic Institutions Requires Standing Up for Them Worldwide

A Conversation with Nusrat Ghani, British Member of Parliament

Tyrannical regimes, no matter how far away, create ripples that damage institutions worldwide. Democracies need the confidence to speak and act against oppression — or risk weakening their own foundations.

Nusrat Ghani joins members of the Uyghur community in London on April 22, 2021 to call on the British Parliament to vote to recognize persecution of Uyghur people in China as genocide and crimes against humanity.

Nusrat Ghani is a British Member of Parliament who serves a constituency in East Sussex. The Conservative Party member has been a leading voice in the United Kingdom and elsewhere on behalf of Uyghur Muslims. She argues their persecution by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a crime against humanity.

Ghani spoke with Natalie Gonnella-Platts, Director of the Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative, and Chris Walsh, Deputy Director of the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative and Women’s Initiative, about liberal democracies needing to call out human rights abuses, including those faced by the Uyghurs in China and women and children in Afghanistan. Democratic leaders and their institutions, after all, must stand up for democratic values. The text below has been edited for length and clarity.

As we think about democratic institutions, is there a connection between religious freedom and pluralism in fostering trust in those institutions and a democratic society? If so, how do they interact?

There is an absolute link. Regimes that aren’t democratic, and don’t allow their people to be free, don’t allow any diversity in thought, practicing any alternative, or any faith whatsoever. What we’re seeing, unfortunately, is people’s rights to choose what religion they wish to practice, or any other way of living their lives, under huge threat.

This control is about trying to maintain any of the assets that a country has and anything their people produce. Liberal democracy is under threat, but I believe it to be resilient.

If I can reflect on Afghanistan, it felt like the withdrawal and its speed enabled regimes around the world that always have tried to undermine liberal democracy to say, “This form of government just doesn’t work. Instead, you should have faith in what we’re doing. We’ll take care of you, but you mustn’t ask any questions.”

It felt as though the West lacked confidence in talking about the tenets of a liberal democracy: transparency, accountability, and all those things that are valuable to us in the West. We didn’t have the confidence to talk about liberal democracy, let alone promote it long enough in countries that are desperately seeking out liberal democracy.

How then can democratic leaders ensure that democracy delivers for its people, and strengthen that trust and confidence in democratic institutions?

My argument has always been that Afghanistan was just 20 years young, if you think about how long the Taliban had been out of power. So, it was shortsighted to expect that, in those 20 years, people with their first experience of education would be in positions of power in institutions that would provide resilience against the Taliban. It took a little while longer.

I’ve been working with Afghans for about 20, 25 years, and many of them were hoping for their children to eventually have positions of power in local government, or any other institutions that we take for granted in liberal democracies. They hadn’t quite gotten there yet, so there was no resilience whatsoever to dealing with the Taliban. Also, there were bigger issues at play in Afghanistan, corruption being one of them.

We not only have a lack of confidence in the West to talk about what it means to live in a liberal democracy, we also don’t have the foresight to support those individuals and those institutions long enough for them to settle into a country. We have to give democracy a chance to thrive. 

A classic page from the tyrant’s playbook is to crack down on minorities, whether religious minorities, women, or other vulnerable communities. Why is that such a key part of the tyrant’s playbook?

Everyone assumed that the Taliban were going to promote a new ideology when they re-emerged. But that was absurd. Their ideology has never changed. They are never going to let other ideologies co-exist with their own.

They believe you have to crack down to control people and to ensure there is no dissent. If there was dissent, there’d be a challenge, and a challenge requires a dialogue, and a challenge requires some sort of accountability. That cannot take place within regimes that know, if they were open, there would be no trust between them and the people. 

If there was dissent, there’d be a challenge, and a challenge requires a dialogue, and a challenge requires some sort of accountability. That cannot take place within regimes that know, if they were open, there would be no trust between them and the people.

Another example is how the Chinese Communist Party has struggled to control the Uyghur people. The CCP is struggling with the fact that many Uyghurs have not given up on their Muslim faith and Uyghur identity. The CCP is not used to this kind of dissent. They need uniformity of thought to continue being in power. 

Unfortunately, the Uyghur people are being brutalized to the point where it’s difficult not to use the word “genocide,” especially in the United Kingdom. We had a Uyghur Tribunal, which Sir Geoffrey Nice QC chaired. He oversaw the investigation into the Bosnian genocide, and determined in the case of the Uyghurs that the evidence unfortunately meets the legal requirements that a genocide is taking place against the Uyghur people, especially a biological genocide against Uyghur women.

Nus Ghani (right) meets with Tursunay Ziyawudun, survivor of concentration camps detaining millions for being Uyghur in Xinjiang. She told of state orchestrated rape of women like herself in the camps. (via <a href="">Twitter</a>)

Women always pay the price first, whether it’s the Afghan women whose movement and lives the Taliban wish to control or the Uyghur women who are being brutalized to the point where we know there are levels of forced sterilization taking place.

Yet the West struggles to coordinate itself or use any of its international institutions, such as the UN, to try and penalize the CCP. Or get those democratic institutions our countries worked to establish after the Second World War to investigate and use the word genocide.

This is what tyrannical regimes do best. They not only damage the countries that they’re in, but also the institutions that the rest of us have put in place to ensure that we can have stable governments around the world and promote democracy, transparency, and accountability.

This is what tyrannical regimes do best. They not only damage the countries that they’re in, but also the institutions that the rest of us have put in place to ensure that we can have stable governments.

You regularly use your platform in Parliament to ensure your colleagues do not look away. Why is this important? And where have you seen successes in your work that might inspire others to act similarly?

I’m democratically elected by my constituents in Wealden in East Sussex. Everything I explain to them is a part of my job as an elected official, something that the Chinese Communist Party fails to understand. 

For example, I sit on the Business Select Committee, which follows the policy department in government that does business, industrial relations and energy affairs. One thing that’s come about is the obligation of businesses to show transparency in their supply chains. We’re doing everything we can to make sure there is no slave labor in their supply chains. 

None of that was being exposed when it came to Xinjiang. I wanted to showcase that even when we have UK laws or international laws, the CCP undermines them. Businesses linked to Xinjiang are not only unable to tell us what’s happening in those factories, they can’t even go in and do the basic due diligence for themselves.

You’ve got UK firms that say they’re observing UK laws and regulations, but when you read their reports, you realize there’s a black spot when it comes to Xinjiang. I tried to expose that. You’re going to be transparent or you’re not.

We know that when it comes to Xinjiang, it’s basically an open prison, and there are one million Uyghurs in those prisons — men mostly, but also women. They are involved in manufacturing products that end up on our shelves. It’s absolutely right that we expose products tainted by Uyghur slave labor, expose it to the firms, and say you cannot put out statements that say your supply chains are clean.

Many firms want to do the right thing. Once they realize they’re involved in a factory or with a supply chain manager who isn’t as clean as could be, they’ll want to go to where it can be. They want to make sure the consumers are buying with a level of trust. It was absolutely within the interest of my constituents, within the interests of my country to expose what was happening here.

Evidence also was growing that the abuses in Xinjiang were beyond torture and human rights abuses. I know genocide is a heavy term. But the fourth of the five markers of genocide is the absolute intent to destroy a group of people from the planet.

The evidence was growing that this was taking place, to the point where the Uyghur Tribunal was set up in London. You’d expect the United Nations to investigate what’s happening in Xinjiang, but it can’t. It is handcuffed by the Chinese Communist Party. The Uyghur Tribunal determined genocide had occurred. Once a tribunal has determined that, firms can’t say we didn’t know our supply chain was dirty or what was happening in Xinjiang.

In mid-January, Parliament approved my motion discussing the Tribunal’s verdict and unanimously declared that the government must urgently act under its legal and moral obligations under the International Court of Justice’s Bosnia and Herzegovina v Serbia and Montenegro 2007 ruling to assess the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang. The agreed motion means three things will now take place.

First, the government must urgently assess whether it considers there to be a “serious risk” of genocide in the Uyghur region under its International Court of Justice obligations, and present its findings to Parliament in two months. Second, the government must protect the British public by creating a blacklist of British companies profiting from the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang, and accept the recommendations of my Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee Report. Third, the government must sanction the perpetrators of this genocide, including Chen Quanguo.

The government is now on notice – and we welcome the report being presented to Parliament in two months.

We also need our national governments to do greater due diligence. Now that we know a genocide has been determined, we are obliged within the UN to ensure that we aren’t complicit in any way whatsoever. We have to assess our relationship to what’s happening in Xinjiang and with the CCP. 

Protesters gather outside Parliament to voice opposition to China's genocide of the Uyghurs, April 22, 2021. (Brian Minkoff / Shutterstock)

We have seen the CCP and other authoritarian governments target activists outside of their borders, including in free societies, through intimidation. What are we to do with this? And how does that affect trust in our own institutions?

We have seen the CCP and other authoritarian governments target activists outside of their borders, including in free societies, through intimidation. What are we to do with this? And how does that affect trust in our own institutions?

We know that the Chinese Communist Party undermines democratic institutions. In the UK, where we have just a small cohort of Uyghur people, we do everything we can to protect them just like we do our constituents. I do know that Uyghur survivors are under a huge amount of pressure. That reminds us we mustn’t take lightly what we’re doing. It’s easy for me to work with individuals who are gathering the evidence. It’s far more difficult for that person to be talking about their experiences or the impact on their family. 

That doesn’t mean we stop. By remaining silent, the oppressors win. We have to continue to campaign and talk about what we’re doing.

One of the more prominent protests to what the Chinese government is doing to the Uyghur people is the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The UK and the United States have led on that front. What do statements like that signal about a country’s commitment to freedom, democracy, and human rights? And why are moves like this so important? 

They are important because we have to use the appropriate levers at the appropriate time to have authority not only on this issue, but to try and persuade the powers within the Chinese Communist Party that genocide is a crime. These are crimes against humanity. We will not be a part of their whitewash.

What’s curious is that totalitarian regimes want legitimacy. They all want to be at the table. They want to be part of international institutions. They want to have a presence at everything they wish to undermine.

What’s curious is that totalitarian regimes want legitimacy. They all want to be at the table. They want to be part of international institutions. They want to have a presence at everything they wish to undermine.

The privilege of hosting the Olympics comes with responsibility. One is a level of transparency, which means journalists turn up what happens at the Olympics and cover what’s happening in the country. They cover the sports event, and they move around and showcase the beauty of that country and everything that comes with it.

But a BBC journalist left China after exposing the forced sterilization, the forced abortion, the removal of children, and the mass rape of women in these prison camps. 

Uyghur activists at the White House ask the Biden administration to boycott the 2022 Olympic Games, March 17, 2021. (Phil Pasquini / Shutterstock)

A diplomatic boycott of the Olympics also shows there is a problem and we will work with like-minded partners around the world to acknowledge and address the problem. We will do everything to expose what is happening.

The diplomatic boycott enables us to talk about the Uyghur issue, which I know many people think is so distant from their lives. Why are we talking about this? Many people will think this is just another human rights issue in the mix of all the atrocities around the world.  

This boycott is a chance to tell people that what the CCP is doing to the Uyghur people is of a magnitude they cannot understand. We’re talking about millions of people being abused at one time. We’re talking about modern slavery in a way that we thought had been left to history. But it’s here when it comes to Uyghur slave labor, whether it’s picking cotton or being in the prison camps. 

We’re talking about the abuse of women on a scale I don’t believe exists anywhere else in the world. 

Many of your readers may be aware of The Handmaid’s Tale. This is so much worse than The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re talking about a biological genocide, which means that the levels of sterilization have caused birth rates to drop by 60, 70, 80% within Uyghur women in some areas of Xinjiang.

We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of Uyghur children removed from their parents to break the cultural, familial link. It’s absolutely barbaric. We’re talking about men being chained and put on trains and sent off to prison camps, women having their heads shaved to end up on the market. We’re talking about organ harvesting. I’m hoping that with the diplomatic boycott, all of these stories will be exposed throughout the Olympics. 

I’ll be rooting for the British athletes, hoping they’ll come home with gold. At the same time, we cannot continue diplomatic relations as if nothing has happened. Everything has changed. 

I’m putting pressure on the BBC to make sure that the sports part of the BBC, which is a big broadcast in the UK, covers the Olympics in all of its glory as it should. But we should use this time to talk about what else is happening in China, particularly Xinjiang, and why that matters to us within our homes in the UK. 

You often hear in stalwart democracies like the UK and the U.S. that we have to solve our problems before we can tell the world what they should be doing. How, then, do democracies like ours have the credibility to speak both domestically and globally about the plight of people like China’s Uyghurs?

People that want us to stop talking about the Uyghurs often raise our legitimacy on this issue. I think I’ve made our legitimacy clear. Institutions put in place since the Second World War are now being undermined by the Chinese Communist Party. We have rules, regulations, and legislation that say we should not have slave labor within our supply chains. Furthermore, we have an international understanding of what human rights abuse is. Also, we have an agreement that genocide should not be taking place. 

Getting our own houses in order, this is what we do day in, day out. Part of my job as a member of Parliament for East Sussex is dealing with issues that are very important to my constituents. 

But it also is important that a genocide is not taking place on my watch, on their watch. Democracy will falter unless we have the confidence to deal with bigger issues.

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